To understand why the government has temporarily closed its doors, all I have to do is to look on the upper left corner of my car windshield. The little sticker tells me exactly when I must take my car in for its next maintenance check. If the oil light on my car dashboard turns red, and I do nothing about it, what can I expect?
From my perspective, the light has been red on Capitol Hill for almost two decades.
Because I have spent those years in the crossfire between the armies of Left and Right, this current government shut-down does not surprise me. What surprises me is how long it took for the aging, defective partisan machine to actually break down. It was a simply matter of time before Capitol Hill, like a poorly maintained engine desperately in need of oil, ground to a halt.
Ever since I co-designed and facilitated the Bipartisan Congressional Retreats in 1997 and 1999, dubbed the “civility retreats” by the press, I have watched closely as the two-cylinder engine that drives American politics sputtered, misfired and repeatedly underperformed.
This is exactly what happened in Washington. The vehicle of American politics does not have a responsible owner. Instead, it has two irresponsible, reckless drivers: the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Whenever one hits the accelerator, the other slams on the brakes. Each wants to gain advantage over the other in order to control the car. Like a squabbling couple, they are more interested in bickering than in fixing what broken.
The question is: Now that the engine has stopped running, who will take it into the shop and how will we get there?
At the weekend-long civility retreats in Hershey, Pennsylvania, over two hundred members of the House of Representatives developed a comprehensive, detailed portrait of what was not working on Capitol Hill and what needed to be done to fix it. However, once they returned to Washington, party leaders made sure that nothing changed. (The only recommendation that accepted was establishing “family room” in the Capitol building where spouses and children of Members could “feel at home.” Our elected representatives did not want anything to stop them from playing the partisan game the old way.
Up to a point, the blame game can be a winning strategy during the election season. The problem is that, unlike a generation ago, “election time” now never ends. It used to be that politicians played by slash-and-burn election rules for a few months before November every other year. Now they play by those rules all the time. There is almost no “governing” anymore. It is all electioneering.
When I am asked today whether Washington would benefit from another civility retreat, my answer is simple. Such a gathering is once again necessary; but by itself, it is not sufficient. We, the American people, must make it clear to our representatives that we know the system is broken and needs to be fixed. This means that the outcomes of the retreats must have political muscle. The implementation of the recommended changes, and the enforcement of the agreements, must not be left to party leaders to act upon because they will not follow through.
During my four years consulting to the US House of Representatives, my “boss” was not the party leaders. It was the Bipartisan Retreat Committee which consisted of five Democrats and five Republicans whose job it was to administer the civility retreats fairly. There was no “majority” or “minority;” they were equal partners with a shared responsibility. They were trained in the tools of dialogue and deliberation. They collaborated with great dignity and professionalism.
One of the concrete proposals that emerged from the retreat was just this: partnership. The House must find practical ways, in committee and in the legislative process on the floor, for across-the-aisle partnerships to function more effectively. Instead of only incentivizing partisan one-upsmanship, genuine co-leading by cross-party pairs and teams must become an integral part of congressional culture.
Just as members of a family must care about more than their own self-interest if the family is to flourish, so must the members of the House of Representatives care about more than their own party fortunes. Unless the interests of the institution itself are built into the structure of the Congress, it will never actually be repaired. It may start running again; but it will not be truly fixed.
Let’s remember that the Founding Fathers foresaw this problem. As they formulated the Constitution, they said that every generation (which Jefferson then considered to be every nineteen years) would have to rewrite the rules of governance. It’s time for a new generation of leaders to step forward to fulfill that promise.
Mark Gerzon, vice-president of Mediators Foundation, is the author of Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences Into Opportunities.