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Trust is the 'currency of government' and it's hard to earn in Washington

WASHINGTON — On a narrow wall of Rep. John Curtis’ congressional office hangs a framed front page of the Jerusalem Post.

Curtis, a Republican representing Utah’s 3rd Congressional District, was a student in BYU’s study abroad program in Israel, working the banana fields on a kibbutz in the Galilee, when President Jimmy Carter witnessed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin sign a historic peace treaty on March 26, 1979. He picked up a copy of the newspaper chronicling the event and has hung on to it ever since.

“That is very symbolic of what can be done in an environment where there was a severe lack of trust,” Curtis said, describing the framed clipping featuring a photo of the three leaders clumsily stacking all six of their hands together in celebration.

On Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, legendary Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward met with Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a former law clerk for Judge John J. Sirica who was among the first to listen to President Richard Nixon’s White House tapes, to engage i

It's debatable whether the ongoing government shutdown over U.S. border security is as high stakes as Middle East peace in the 1970s. But some in Utah's congressional delegation say today's stalemate is a consequence of eroding trust among political leaders and between those leaders and the voters who put them in power.

"What the founders intended for our government is a system where debate and disagreement happens. And out of that disagreement comes consensus," said Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, who served in the state Senate and as Salt Lake County mayor before his election to Congress in November. "But right now, I think what's lacking is trust, so neither side can negotiate because there's no trust. And that's broken Washington, right there."

Utah's congressional delegation shared their views on trust before an event Monday at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., on integrity and trust in government, sponsored by the Deseret News. Elder D. Todd Christofferson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Council of the Twelve Apostles, famed journalist Bob Woodward, an associate editor of The Washington Post, and Michael Dimock, president of the Pew Research Center, discussed the lessons of Watergate and the public perception of trust and integrity in government.

More than 400 people attend the "Integrity and Trust: Lessons from Watergate and Today" event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.
More than 400 people attend the "Integrity and Trust: Lessons from Watergate and Today" event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The event was attended by Curtis, McAdams, and Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney of Utah, lawmakers both praised and criticized for their role in Washington and the efforts they can make to get Washington moving again.

Declining confidence

American confidence in its institutions has been in steady decline since Gallup first measured it in 1973, in the wake of the Watergate scandal that toppled the presidency. In that year, 42 percent of Americans had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in Congress. Last year, 11 percent of Americans felt the same. That's up from 7 percent in 2014, but it didn't change the legislative branch's dead last ranking among the 14 institutions Gallup measured, which include the military, religious institutions and newspapers.

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said he noticed the decline long before he was first elected in 2012. But the past election marked a particular moment for him when he heard people in government say "the people made a mistake" in whom they elected as president and Congress needs to correct that.

"Government has to trust the people and the people have to trust the government. We've seen fundamental breakdowns in both of those," he said.

Romney attributes the decline in trust in government to the divisiveness that dominates today's politics.

"I think our politics have become too low, too vulgar, too mean, too divisive," the 2012 GOP presidential candidate said. "It's good politics to divide but it's bad for the country to divide. And I think it's important for leaders of all kinds to help bring us together and unite us more behind common beliefs and a common vision."

Romney sounded almost surprised recounting how he met with senators from both parties shortly after his November election and came away with a sense of unity among his new colleagues.

"Both Democrats and Republicans almost to a person said, 'You know what, we get along a lot better than the public perception would suggest, and we can get things done across the aisle.'"

He noted the bipartisan criminal justice overhaul spearheaded by Lee as one example of how Congress can unite behind policy changes. The First Step Act was signed by the president in late December.

Agree to disagree

Lee, who was elected in the same year that tea party candidates arrived to shake up a Congress that they believed was too congenial, waxes philosophical about trust and how it is earned.

He recalled during his time as a law clerk for federal 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Samuel Alito, who would later be appointed to the Supreme Court, hearing the late Justice Antonin Scalia say "to understand is to forgive."

"And I think that is closely related to the concept of trust. When you understand someone else's viewpoint, it goes a long way toward having the ability to empathize with them and not take offense," Lee said. "If you understand someone that should enable you to respect differences of opinion and work with them, even if you're working against what they believe in ... and that enables you to have a degree of respect and civility that might not otherwise exist."

McAdams said he learned trust is the "currency of government" as a state senator — a minority Democrat working with a super majority of Republicans. He recalled hammering out the Utah Compact — a set of principles lawmakers would follow in addressing immigration issues — with people who had differing opinions on a divisive, emotional topic.

"And because we trusted that the goal was to find consensus and not to land a punch or embarrass somebody, we were actually able to have candid conversations and find a path forward that was acceptable," he said.

But that's not what the public prefers from its lawmakers, according to Pew Research Center. A survey in March showed Americans are more inclined to prefer politicians who stick to their positions than those who make compromises with people they disagree with(53 percent vs. 44 percent.)

"This marked a reversal from July 2017, when nearly 6 in 10 Americans (58 percent) said they preferred politicians who compromised and 39 percent said they preferred politicians who stick to their positions," Pew stated.

The data showed Republicans were historically less inclined to prefer elected leaders who compromised, but last year showed no difference among Democrats and Republicans.

Pity or respect

Whether they used the terms compromise, consensus, understanding, unity or common ground, Utah's congressmen and senators explained that trusting people you don't agree with doesn't mean compromising personal principles.

In fact, the people willing to cut deals or follow party leadership at the expense of their principles are those he doesn't trust, said Rep Rob Bishop, R-Utah and dean of the delegation having served in Congress 15 years and another 25 years in Utah's Legislature.

"You trust people who are consistent," he said. "If I know somebody will always be the same kind of person and give you the same kind of reliable approach, even if I don't agree with that, at least there is a greater respect for that position."

He said politicians who worry whether a vote will cost them re-election or support are more pitied than respected.

"A good congressman's or a good senator's first responsibility is to do the right thing," Bishop said, "so you can look in the mirror in the morning and know that you are not a sellout."

He said the variable that has changed the most to maintaining trust in government in his career has been the media. The internet's upheaval of mass media has created a more partisan business model that has eliminated neutral sources of news for him.

"Everyone is going after a niche market, so I'm more skeptical of the media as time goes on," he said.

While Congress has reached a low point in public confidence and this new era of divided government has resulted in a record-long shutdown of many federal agencies, the country has periods of broken trust in more dire circumstances, said Stewart, an author whose has written two books on tipping points in political history.

He cited the political rancor at the turn of the 19th century and the years preceding the Civil War as examples. Both periods were followed by a war that eventually reunited the country and its government.

"I'm not suggesting war is the only event that can bring us together," he said. "But I have come to the conclusion that something meaningful is going to have to compel us to want to work together to remind us that we're Americans and to break down some of these cultural barriers that we are raising."

Curtis could add Carter's brokering peace between Israel and Egypt to the times when trust was necessary to break an impasse. The framed clipping on his wall reminds him of the role trust plays in his job in Congress.

"I've learned whether it's business or government or really any relationships, trust is like that little drop of oil on the cogs in the machinery that just makes things go."