It's a new year. More than 100 new members of Congress were sworn in Wednesday and a majority of President Obama's first-term cabinet members will likely depart over the next few months. Nonetheless, hardly anybody here in Washington really thinks that things will change in Congress. Partisan bickering seems certain to continue and the debate over the fiscal cliff will give way to an equally angry debate over the debt ceiling. Nonetheless, with approval for Congress near an all-time low, Washington's elected officials need some real change. There's no magic way to fix Washington or make it work but there is one thing that members of Congress on both sides need to do more of: talk and socialize with people from the other party. It sounds hugely simple and it's not going to solve deep problems but, in the past few years, I've become amazed by how little members of Congress associate with people who aren't members of the same caucus.
The underlying reason for the divide is simple: members of Congress do run with different party platforms because they have fundamentally different ways of looking at the world. On many big, important issues there is probably never going to be agreemen and really shouldn't. But when it comes to the day-to-day operations of Congress and the good of the country, personal relationships can mean a whole lot. For example, Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell, who aren't friends but had at least gotten to know one another during their long mutual service in the Senate, were the ones who worked out the imperfect-but-at-least-it's-something fiscal cliff compromise.
But such relationships are increasingly rare. In the last year alone, the staff of a very well known Democratic senator has called me at least three times to look for Republican senators who might help him with generally conservative-friendly measures. Although I'm glad to be called, I'm a decidedly B-list policy guy who has never played a big role in the sausage factory of actual legislative drafting and know only a handful of senators personally. The senator should have at least some friends who are willing to help but, by the frequency of the calls I get, he just doesn't. Some members don't even pretend any more: Senator Elizabeth Warren explicitly refused to mention a single sitting Republican she would work with. (Republicans can be just as bad: former Congressman Joe Walsh explicitly refused to "extend" his "hand across the aisle.) And the problems go to the very top. During the heat of the fiscal cliff debate, President Obama and Speaker Boehner met only sporadically and never reached any sort of agreement between themselves.
And the entire culture of congressional staffs makes things even worse. Soon after starting as a Republican Senate staffer, I once spent the better part of an afternoon trying to answer a simple policy question after a superior told me that I couldn't call a Democratic office that I knew would have the answer. (I eventually ignored that type of advice and called Democrats whenever I felt it made sense.) It's absurd. Working together on little things -- for real, not just for the sake of symbolic bipartisanship -- can make big things work a lot better.
It's easy to oversell the importance of simply talking: it's not going to solve every problem or result in a miraculous transformation of the nation. But the lack of basic communication makes Congress' acrimonious atmosphere a self-perpetuating reality. If Congress wants to improve its reputation, its members have to talk to one another a lot more.