As President Obama hosts yet another bipartisan dinner — one in early March and the latest, a steak and greens feast at the White House, last Wednesday— I can’t help but recall that over the years, I too have hosted many similar dinners at my home. Most often these dinners are with our elected officials from both sides of the aisle. The idea is a good one: it encourages substantive dialogue, can often form friendships and can show us that a lot of the time, we might not disagree as much as we lead on.
But, to be frank, a few nice dinners between Republicans and Democrats isn’t enough to bridge the divides that exist in American politics today.
At my most recent dinner, I found myself having the same conversation over and over again with Republicans and Democrats alike. First, they’re all torn between the constituents who voted them into office, and Washington, where business continues as usual. Second, a lot of times they are torn between trying to govern and risking a backlash from extremists in their own party.
While engaging in dialogue over dinner once or twice every few months is a positive, our leaders in the Executive Branch and Congress need to reinstate a process that affords policy makers the opportunity to deliberate and engage in a legislative structure aligned with what our founders intended.
We need to reexamine what our committee structure has become. I believe the best bills for the most amount of people follow a grassroots approach, arising first from the subcommittee level and working from the bottom up, not the top down. Working from the rank and file legislators on up develops in-depth policy knowledge from committee members and allows for committee chairs and ranking members to exert influence over topics that they know more intimately than party leadership.
Even as the leader of the House, Speaker Boehner often speaks about restoring order to this process. We need more of that willingness from more members. Both parties will often recall the days where committee chairs and members of the Executive branch enjoyed great relationships, even in a divided government. That sort of thing is non-existent today.
The continuous campaign remains one of the deepest thorns in the side of bipartisanship. The looming threat from each side makes it almost impossible to take political risks and the very foundation for bipartisanship, trusting relationships across the aisle, is becoming a thing of the past.
The Executive branch must build better relations on Capitol Hill. Over the past twenty years, both parties have done a poor job of this while in the White House. Better relations between the two bodies are essential to promoting understanding and trust, which will lead toward more meaningful dialogue.
Hopefully President Obama will invite not only Republicans but his cabinet members to the table as well. He must encourage his cabinet to have better relationships with Congress and more of them. Those same cabinet members must also be willing to visit the hill and advocate on his behalf. If he wants to pass any considerable policy in the next three years, he has no other choice.
Setting the table is one thing, keeping people at it for the hard work is entirely another. Dinner is a start but a restored legislative process with an engaged president and cabinet will be required before we finally address our nation’s problems in a meaningful way.