12/23/2010 04:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lame Duck Congressmen Candidly Discuss a Flawed Political System

If the truth shall set you free, then losing an election might mark the first step towards freedom. At a recent discussion by four newly defeated members of Congress, truth was on vivid display as they reflected upon their political careers with great candor. "There's a new definition of bipartisanship in Washington -- it's called a former member," said Rep. Chet Edwards (D-TX) to laughs from the audience. "I hope it doesn't become a requirement."

Last week's breakfast, "Exit Interviews: What We Learned," was sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a bipartisan think tank in Washington, founded by former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and George Mitchell to promote bipartisan solutions to the country's most pressing policy issues.

During the discussion, Senator Robert Bennett (R-UT), and Representatives Edwards, Mike Castle (R-DE) and Earl Pomeroy (D-ND), spoke of the obstacles that now impede cooperation across party lines -- many of them emerging from within their own parties. Each described a modern political system whose integrated parts -- from overtly partisan media to each party's Congressional leadership to ideologically-driven primary challenges -- now systematically encourage political conflict, and are more likely to punish, than to reward, compromise.

Castle, for instance, described a continuum of pressure that begins within the caucus itself. "We'll have our leadership stand up and they'll tell you how important it is to beat the hell out of the other side, to make them look bad," he said. "They are preaching adversity; they're preaching a pure ideology, if you will. For those of us in the middle, that becomes very difficult."

Looming behind that internal pressure is the threat of primary challenges against legislators seen as collaborating too often with the other party. Castle should know: he described himself as the candidate who was 'taken out by a woman who is not a witch,' referring to Tea Party favorite Christine O'Donnell, who defeated him in the Delaware GOP Senate primary. Democrat Chris Coons went on to beat O'Donnell handily in the midterm election, picking up the Senate seat that was once expected to be an easy win for Castle.

Castle described his experience as emblematic of the ability of the political parties and outside groups to exact a price for any attempt at bipartisanship. "There's a huge thrust by the political parties to stay in line, to do it your way, and they discourage the getting together and the sitting down with the other side and working something out," he said. "It's a negative if we sit down as Republicans and Democrats and work out legislation -- that becomes a negative in terms of the advertising that's used against us."

From the other side of the aisle, Edwards and Pomeroy described a similar array of reinforcing internal and external pressures for partisan conformity. Like Castle, Edwards said his votes on key issues affected the way he was seen by leaders in the caucus. A Democrat from a heavily Republican district, Edwards often voted against his party to reflect the concerns of his district. "Had I been a more junior member, a freshman or a sophomore, I would've had to worry about my future committee assignments," he said.

Pomeroy described being isolated by his party's leadership after bucking it to vote for the prescription drug bill backed by President George W. Bush and the Republican House majority in 2003. "I went into the penalty box for it felt like two years," he said. "The leaders -- the relationship I had with the leaders of our party was done for a considerable period of time. So you know, votes have consequences -- and you find that out if you do deviate from the party line."

The four politicians onstage -- two Republicans and two Democrats, representing a combined 74 years in Congress -- shared one experience in common: they all lost to Republicans in this tumultuous election year. "I thought I had a safe seat," said Bennett, after being defeated at the Utah Republican Convention by Mike Lee, who will soon be sworn in as the state's junior senator. Like O'Donnell and Castle in Delaware, Lee argued that Bennett was too willing to cooperate with Democrats on issues such as health care and the financial bailout of 2008. When reminded that he had once said it was more important to vote your conscience than to get reelected, Bennett quipped, "I proved it."

The members also blamed pressure from outside forces, including the media, for the lack of bipartisan cooperation in Washington. "I think the media has played a tremendous part in all of this -- much more so than people understand at this point. And it's encouraged a lot of the ideologically-driven politics that we are dealing with today," said Castle. "It's become a huge influence, a huge factor in terms of the politics of this country."

Edwards chastised those who use political disagreements to question an opponent's credibility or patriotism. "Those of us in Congress and those in the media, and those who advertise in the media, need to take some responsibility for changing the discourse. Allow vigorous debate on principles and issues but stop demeaning people's integrity simply because you disagree with them -- stop questioning their patriotism."

He added that Congress's low approval rating is not surprising, given that Americans largely hear about conflict -- rather than agreement or substance -- in today's media. "What I see in the press is a tendency of FOX News and MSNBC, or cable shows on television, and radio talk shows to want the outrageous to speak," Edwards said. "So no wonder our approval ratings are 11% in the country - that's all the American people see. They don't see some of these incredibly good legislators on both sides of the aisle working behind the scenes every day."

Edwards believes such pressures will only intensify as more special interests take advantage of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, allowing corporations to spend directly on political campaigns. "Under the new rules of the Supreme Court, what's going to be a new ballgame is a member is going to have to be fearful if he or she takes on one company or union, that union or company could spend two or three million dollars in advertising [against him or her]," he said. "That's going to change not only elections, but the thought processes of members of Congress in terms of whether they're going to have the courage to take on some very special interests."

Asked if they see any hope for bipartisanship in the 112th Congress, Castle said, "It's gonna be tough sledding out there. I think the conservative element that's coming into Congress on the Republican side is going to make it tough for Republicans. I'm not sure that they'll want to give many victories to this president, and I just think it's going to be a very difficult two years."

Bennett offered a hint of optimism regarding the potential for bipartisan agreement between the White House and Congress. "I do see a glimmer of some hope on the Senate side. I think the conversations between Vice President Biden and Senator McConnell are an omen of hope for the future because these are two grown-ups, these are two fellows who understand exactly how the system works and what needs to be done." Politics aside, the statement certainly had a ring of truth to it.