Utah Rep. Chris Stewart, a Republican, and Hawaii Rep. Ed Case, a Democrat, made the strenuous hike to Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park together on what might be described as a mystery date of sorts.
Though Stewart and Case both serve on the House Appropriations Committee, they had never really met.
With 60 members on the panel, it isn’t unusual that two representatives from opposite parties whose congressional districts have little in common wouldn’t get to know each other.
That changed over a couple of days this week when Stewart and Case palled around the Beehive State with stops at Temple Square, Welfare Square, the University of Utah and Bryce Canyon National Park.
The tour of Stewart’s vast 2nd Congressional District included discussions about religious liberty with Elder Jack N. Gerard, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and health care policy with former Health and Human Services Secretary and GOP Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt. After the hike in Zion, Stewart and Case had a working lunch focused on tourism, preservation and conservation, safety, and natural resources in southern Utah.
It was a fantastic week touring the Beehive State with my friend @RepEdCase, talking about and seeing the issues that most impact Utah.— Rep. Chris Stewart (@RepChrisStewart) August 5, 2021
This trip gave us both great reassurance: Republican or Democrat, we have much more in common than that which divides us. pic.twitter.com/dCLHKurthq
The Bipartisan Policy Center’s American Congressional Exchange brought the two congressmen together as part of its mission to foster collaboration between Democrats and Republicans.
Launched in 2018, the congressional exchange looks to pair lawmakers from different political, cultural and geographical backgrounds to learn about each other’s districts and perhaps find some shared interests. Most participants in the program are not necessarily in the political middle but typically pretty far apart ideologically.
“To really understand where your colleague is coming from it helps to see where they actually come from,” said John Richter, director of the center’s Congress Project.
Richter said the program doesn’t need every member of Congress to buy in, but enough to create a critical mass of people like Stewart and Case who want to get things done.
Stewart’s and Case’s tour of Utah marked the program’s 25th trip. Stewart intends to visit Hawaii in a reciprocal trip. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed the exchanges down last year but the center expects to do a dozen this year.
“I think I got exactly the right partner,” Case said after spending two full days with Stewart. “I didn’t want to go out on the road with somebody who was like me. That wasn’t the goal here. The goal was to go out with someone that was quite different philosophically and who had a different district.”
Stewart, 61, said he couldn’t be more pleased, and that the interactions were exactly what he had hoped for.
“The thing that I learned mostly, which is trite but it’s true, is Ed’s a wonderful person,” he said. “In an environment that is so emotional right now, it’s really easy to look at the other side and say, ‘Every one of those guys are bad people,’ and it didn’t used to be that way.”
Polarization in Washington leaves little room for Republicans and Democrats to work on legislation together or even mingle socially.
Stewart, a retired Air Force pilot now in his fifth term, is an ardent conservative and unabashedly supported former President Donald Trump.
Case, 68, describes himself as not an “off the charts” liberal, but a moderate. He belongs to the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus and is co-chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition, made up of centrist House Democrats. The coalition focuses on fiscal responsibility, national security, rural development and economic development, all issues a Republican like Stewart is concerned about.
“I should join,” Stewart said as Case described the group.
“You’re welcome,” Case replied. “You could be a proxy member, I suppose.”
Case, a lawyer, served in the House from 2002 to 2007 before returning in 2019, partly because he was “disgusted” with the dysfunction in Congress, which he said was worse than in his first tour of duty.
“I was naturally inclined when I went back to Congress to look for the opportunities to work across party lines and try to make government work,” he said.
Out of the gate, Case and Stewart agreed that Washington is broken. They found common ground on immigration reform and having a strong national defense, particularly as it relates to more effectively countering China in the South Pacific. They also agree with President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
In southern Utah, Case said he learned about payment in lieu of taxes, or PILT, the system by which the federal government compensates counties for public land ownership.
Republicans in the state have long complained that the program isn’t fair and local governments could yield more revenue under state control by creating greater access to natural resources. Case said the PILT formula doesn’t work.
“I didn’t expect that to happen on this trip,” he said.
Another federal land concern is the cost to local agencies to conduct search and rescue missions, a relevant issue in Utah and Hawaii. Stewart and Case hope to find a way for the federal government to reimburse localities for those missions.
In addition to those issues, the two congressmen intend to talk about the possibility of establishing a U.S. consulate in Tonga.
Stewart and Case aren’t exactly on the same page when it comes to the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package being debated in the Senate this week. Case came out in favor of the bill, while Stewart has reservations.
Stewart said he supports money going to shore up the nation’s highways and bridges, but that only accounts for a small part of the bill. He and Case, however, share concern about adding to the national debt.
“The American people want, need and deserve a government that works.” Speaking at my #ProblemSolvers Caucus news conference on Capitol Hill urging quick passage of the $1.25 trillion bipartisan infrastructure measure agreed to earlier this week (1/2) pic.twitter.com/qPHSJXlG4F— Rep. Ed Case (@RepEdCase) July 30, 2021
The two also have different takes on the Equality Act, which the House passed earlier this year. The legislation would expand federal civil rights protections for LGBTQ+ Americans to preventing discrimination in housing, education and public services.
Case, a co-introducer of the bill, said he wants national standards and protections that assure nondiscrimination in basic points, and sexual orientation is one of those basic points.
“We should not have discrimination anywhere if we can avoid it. We shouldn’t have it in sports, we shouldn’t have it in the workplace, we shouldn’t have it in a lot of places,” he said.
Stewart sponsored what he describes as compromise legislation known as the Fairness for All Act, which would outlaw sexual orientation and gender identity-based discrimination, but expand legal protections for people of faith. He said if the Equality Act can’t get through the Senate, there might be a chance for a more bipartisan bill.
“There might be opportunity for us to engage with people like Ed and others if the Equality Act turns out not to have a pathway forward,” Stewart said.
Maybe that’s something they could talk about on a beach in Hawaii.