Retired House members discuss the challenges of partisanship

MEGAN THOMPSON: Democrat Steve Israel served in Congress from 2001 to 2016, representing a politically centrist district on Long Island.  A few years into his tenure, he co-founded the "center aisle caucus."  The effort to foster bipartisanship regularly drew around 25 Democrats and 25 Republicans to a Chinese restaurant near Capitol Hill.

STEVE ISRAEL:  We had a kitchen timer. Five minutes to state your disagreements, and then 55 minutes to figure out where you could agree. It was sublime. It was so liberating. You know what I learned from that experience at center aisle caucus? Democrats and Republicans are going to disagree 75 percent of the time, and that's okay. The problem with Washington is that we're so busy beating each other up on 75 percent that we will never agree to that we forget that there's 25 percent waiting to be passed. And that can be passed quickly.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Back in the capitol Israel found those agreements behind the scenes rarely became policy. One example – infrastructure.

STEVE ISRAEL:  So I'd have conversations with colleagues on the other side of the aisle who would say, "Yeah, we're spending the lowest level of financing on infrastructure in recent history. We need to do more. We need to generate those investments."  But they couldn't say that in public because they would be tarred as tax and spenders. And they just couldn't withstand that label.

CANDICE MILLER: Both parties are very, very partisan.

MEGAN THOMPSON: For 14 years, Republican Candice Miller represented Macomb County, Michigan, just north of Detroit, a swing area of a swing state, won twice by Barack Obama and then won by Donald trump. She was Michigan's secretary of state before serving in Congress.

CANDICE MILLER: I've been used to reaching out across the aisle and working with Democrats. And we worked pretty well in Macomb County because of that. But then, of course, when I went to Congress I found it was a much more partisan environment.

MEGAN THOMPSON: She agrees with Israel — partisanship impedes progress on big issues.

CANDICE MILLER:  Whether that's dealing with entitlements, or dealing with national defense, or dealing with so many things that face us, we need to come together in some ways on some of these huge issues..

MEGAN THOMPSON: With its Tea Party wing insurgent in 2010, Republicans picked up 63 seats and regained control of the House.

CANDICE MILLER: Well, I think that the Tea Party was a result of people around the country who were just absolutely fed up with the way that Washington was operating, particularly, I think in that case, of course, because the way that President Obama was really operating with all of the executive orders, with Obamacare. So many governmental overreaches. I think there was a huge pushback.

MEGAN THOMPSON: But, Miller says, the party's shift to the right affected its own ability to get things done. In 2015, some of the most conservative house members formed the Freedom Caucus, which voted "no" as a bloc on many issues.

CANDICE MILLER: It really hindered, I think, the ability for the Republican conference when I was there even though we were in the majority we couldn't get the optimal kind of bills that we were looking for done.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Israel says the polarization in Congress has grown because of partisan redistricting — the way states redrew House district lines following the 2010 Census.

STEVE ISRAEL: Too many Congressional districts are drawn to protect a Republican incumbent or a Democratic incumbent. And if they're drawn to protect a Democratic or Republican incumbent, that incumbent necessarily has to cut further and further to the left or the right. If you had less partisan redistricting where districts were kind of drawn more towards the middle, you would have more meeting in the middle by members of Congress.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Israel supports taking the redistricting power away from state legislators and putting independent commissions in charge.  Miller says that's not so simple.

CANDICE MILLER:  You're never gonna take politics out of politics; it's just impossible. So when they say, "Well, we're gonna get a non-political group that's gonna draw these lines." Uh, Okay. (laugh) I don't know if anyone believes that.  I don't know who these nonpolitical people are, they're gonna draw political lines that have no interest in politics?  Maybe.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Israel – who will now chair an institute on global issues at Long Island University –  left Congress in part because he came to dread the fundraising.

Not just for his own campaigns, but for fellow Democrats when he chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

STEVE ISRAEL: I actually calculated the amount of time that I spent raising money for my re-elections over 16 years: 4,200 hours on the phone asking people for money, dialing for dollars. 1600 separate cocktail parties. That's 4,200 hours that I wasn't spending trying to figure out how we're gonna strengthen Medicare, trying to figure out how we're gonna make sure that the middle class grows their paychecks.

MEGAN THOMPSON: The need for infrastructure improvements is one area where Israel and Miller see common ground.  In her new job as Macomb County public works commissioner, Miller has had to deal with a massive sinkhole caused by a broken sewer line.

CANDICE MILLER: That's a very vivid demonstration of how our immediate area and quite frankly this could happen in lots of places in our country because we have not addressed infrastructure. We've not invested enough infrastructure. And so I'm very hopeful President Trump will be able to get a very good transportation and infrastructure investment bill through.

MEGAN THOMPSON: As Congress gets down to business under the new president, Miller and Israel have this advice for new members.

CANDICE MILLER: You might only be there for one session of Congress. You might be there for a much longer time. But be bold, don't be afraid to be bold. Do the right thing, be bold. Never forget who you actually are representing, though. These are your bosses. And so always remember your constituents before you think about your party.

STEVE ISRAEL: Number one, find a friend with whom you disagree. Understand there are no absolutes in Washington. Most of the issues that you're gonna be dealing with are actually in a gray area. And so find somebody who you like but somebody who you disagree with and start to learn from one another.

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