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Political courage: The missing ingredient for a functional Congress

Democrats keep the House while Republicans likely hold the Senate. Some call this gridlock; we call it a vote for compromise

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Amid the messy process of American democracy this week, it has become likely that, once again, voters will have chosen to have Democrats control the House and Republicans control the Senate in Washington.

Some would call this a vote for gridlock. We prefer to think of it as a vote for compromises and collaborative government, the best, most representative example of government by the people.

Imagine a room large enough to hold every adult in the United States, complete with devices allowing them to vote on important matters. It would be foolish to think such a gathering would agree on much when it comes to solving big issues of the day. Naturally, it would be just as foolish to expect initial agreement when the representatives such a diverse nation elects come to Washington.

But it is not foolish to expect those representatives to come together in good faith and craft solutions with parts agreeable to all sides. 

We don’t blame the skeptics. Most recently, a divided Congress has abdicated its duty to resolve the nation’s most vexing problems, forcing these onto the executive branch, where presidents Obama and Trump have responded with executive orders that, in turn, required the judicial branch to issue rulings. 

Neither the executive nor the judicial branches are supposed to make law. That’s the job of the legislative branch. Having a Congress divided by party loyalties is no excuse.

A public conditioned by such constant legislative failure has come to expect more of the same. Party operatives have even come to rely on these failures to fuel their fundraising needs, asking for money to help keep the other side from winning.  

The last time things worked as they were designed was during the 1990s, when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and Democrats controlled the White House. House Speaker Newt Gingrich used the Contract With America as his ideological touchstone. President Bill Clinton relied on his persuasive personality and oratorical skills to craft compromises. The results weren’t always perfect, nor was Washington free from ugly partisan rancor.

But the two sides managed to pass a sweeping welfare reform bill, and they managed to pass a balanced budget, something neither party seems interested in pursuing these days.

Experts will note that moderates held more clout in those days than they do today, when politics seems to have been pushed toward the ideological fringes in each party. That sounds like an excuse. 

The real missing ingredient is political courage, which often requires lawmakers to expend political capital, risking a measure of support for the greater good. Nations don’t build monuments to milquetoast leaders who cower behind the safety of partisan coattails. Compromise takes hard work. The reward, ultimately, is greater public confidence in government, and a healthier nation.

The United States desperately needs a solution to immigration problems, including new legislation that allows for guest workers and an orderly flow of legitimate migrants across the border. It needs real health care reform, passed with the support of both parties. It needs to see evidence of cooperation and congeniality, starting with the leaders of both chambers.

Elections are times for new beginnings and hope. We call on all members of the newly elected 117th Congress to justify that hope by committing to the necessary hard work. The republic desperately needs this.