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Congress Needs Bipartisan Friendships Now More Than Ever

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As a retired member of Congress and former U.S. Ambassador to the UN World Programme, I've seen my fair share of political fights and divisions over the years. But I've never seen things as bad as they are today. Given Congress' abysmal approval rating, which hit a record low of 11% in February, it seems the American people see things in a similar light.

It's too bad, really. It doesn't have to be this way. I'm reminded of this fact often -- weekly in fact -- during my weekly prayer meetings with Congressman Frank Wolf. Now, Frank is a Republican. And I'm a Democrat. We don't see eye to eye on everything. But as brothers in Christ who worked together for many years in Congress, we were often able to put political differences aside in the name of true friendship and addressing the needs of the most vulnerable.

A recent World Vision blog post helps illustrate my point:

Successful bipartisan partnerships -- and, dare I say it, even friendships -- do exist in Congress. And these partnerships produce real results for real people. Congress has passed countless laws that affect our lives here in the United States, as well as the lives of vulnerable children and families around the world.

Hall and Wolf disagree on several issues. But they have a continuing deep friendship that has proved incredibly fruitful for vulnerable people all over the world. They share a desire to be instruments for change and find common ground on issues like global hunger, human rights, and religious freedom. Together, they have also worked on issues such as conflict diamonds and gambling.

How did such a friendship come about? On a international trip that changed both our lives forever:

Their journey of transformation began with a World Vision-hosted trip to Ethiopia during the famine in 1984. While witnessing the needless suffering and death -- as well as the life-saving work of organizations like World Vision -- they developed a sense of fervor and urgency to help this devastated region. Nearly 30 years later, that fervor is still apparent in their lives.

The trip was just the beginning of a special working relationship between Hall and Wolf in their pursuit of justice and mercy. While working for each of the congressmen, Bob and Randy observed Hall's focus on reconciliation and Wolf's passion for justice. The two created a powerful dynamic that ultimately produced legislation aimed at helping the poor and vulnerable in the world.

They also developed a solid, Christ-centered friendship. To this day, Wolf and Hall meet weekly to encourage one another in their faith and work and carry each other through personal struggles. Hall and his wife, Janet, even support Wolf in his political campaigns.

Here's just one concrete example of how our bipartisan friendship helped save lives:

In 1975, Romania was granted Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status by the United States. However, an amendment linked this status to the country's recognition of human rights. In the mid-1980s, Romania's deteriorating human rights record and the mistreatment of religious and ethnic minorities by dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu became apparent.

With Hall's support, Wolf initiated a campaign to withdraw MFN status, even though it went against political interests in his own state. Because of this, Wolf faced heavy political pressure -- but through it all, Hall backed him up.

Wolf, Hall, and a few other members of Congress traveled to Romania to evaluate the state of human rights there. During this trip, they met with minority community members to understand what those people were facing.

In late 1987, after a three-year campaign by Hall and Wolf, President Reagan withdrew Romania's MFN status. In advance of expected congressional action, Ceauseșcu reacted by claiming he no longer wanted it. Some believe that the decision to drop Romania's MFN status helped to bring about the Romanian Revolution the following year. This was a precedent-setting event.

Such was the practice of Wolf and Hall, time and time again. As one sought to address an injustice, the other would provide support.... Not only did this bipartisan model prove productive, but Wolf and Hall exemplified leadership that led to American engagement in an often-dark world of poverty and injustice.

Some skeptics might scoff at all of this, writing it off as mere nostalgia, or politics from a bygone era when bipartisan friendships were more common than they are today. I disagree.

"Bipartisan partnerships and friendships still exist in Congress; they just don't receive the attention they deserve," concludes the World Vision post. "In this hyper-partisan age, our representatives and senators need to know that we value partnership and cooperation -- because both can make a positive impact here in the United States and around the world, particularly for those suffering from poverty and injustice."

I couldn't agree more.

Bipartisan friendships don't erase our political divisions, but they do fundamentally change how political opponents view one another and engage with one another in the public arena. Perhaps more importantly, they help make visible new opportunities for partnership that might otherwise have never have emerged.

My relationship with Frank Wolf is proof that the American people (and those around the world whose lives are affected by U.S. policy) can benefit when their political leaders authentically invest in building relationships across the aisle. We need this kind of leadership now more than ever.