Imagine an organization that is hopelessly split into two warring factions. Neither side speaks to the other, and each continually blocks the other from taking any action. Instead of moving forward with a common agenda, the two sides spend most of their time personally vilifying each other, and squander most of the resources of the organization trying to defeat their opponents' plans. What if this organization was the biggest and most powerful in the world, determining the fate of hundreds of millions of people and responsible for trillions of dollars?
You guessed it -- this organizational nightmare is not a figment of some demented management consultant's brain -- it is none other than the United States Congress. Is it any wonder that they never get anything done? What business, school, church or non-profit could operate with this kind of organizational culture? Who would want to work in a place where open hostility among employees was not only tolerated, but encouraged? And who would fight tooth and nail for a job at an organization that is almost universally despised by the very people it is supposed to serve?
Winston Churchill famously remarked that "Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Certainly, dysfunctional legislatures are practically a hallmark of democracy, and our Congress is no exception. It has never been a poster child for either efficiency or civility, but in the past decade, Congress has sunk to historic lows. What has gone wrong?
In a recent panel discussion at a conference of business economists, the political pollster and consultant Charlie Cook blamed the lack of personal interaction between the members of Congress for its current partisanship and incivility, not to mention its inability to address the most serious issues facing the nation. In an opinion piece explaining his decision to leave the Senate, Senator Evan Bayh wrote that there were only two occasions where he met with all of his Senate colleagues at other than purely ceremonial events -- once was after the 9/11 attacks. "There were no Republicans or Democrats in the room that day, just Americans," writes Bayh. "The spirit of patriotism and togetherness was palpable. That atmosphere prevailed for only two or three weeks before politics once again intervened. "
Cook and others have traced the rise in partisanship and the lack of social contact between members of Congress to the decision by Speaker Gingrich in 1994 to shorten the weekly sessions in the House and thus encourage members not to move their families to Washington. Gingrich's stated goal was to demonstrate a greater dedication to the political grassroots and prevent members from being overly swayed by the political culture of the capital. While the goal may have been admirable, the results have been disastrous. Coupled with the partisan redistricting of the past fifteen years, it has led to a dangerous disconnect from the common goal of public service. Even worse, it has made it much easier to demonize those on the opposite side of the aisle. Of course, there are lots of reasons for the vicious partisanship in Washington that have nothing to do with the lack of personal interaction across the aisle -- including the Tea Partiers and Fox's right-wing ideologues like Glen Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, not to mention Sarah Palin. But a little more personal contact between members of Congress sure couldn't hurt.
As a child growing up in Washington in the 1960's -- my father worked in the Library of Congress and later in the State Department -- there was no partisanship on the Little League field, in PTA meetings or in church groups. My Cub Scout troop included the son of uber-liberal Hubert Humphrey, while the son of the former Republican Secretary of State was in my class at school. I wasn't old enough to understand how this might impact their work in Congress or at the White House, but I am sure that both Republican and Democratic parents talked about their kids' Little League games, or teachers at school. Once you have faced off at your children's soccer games or chatted at a church picnic, it is hard to treat your political opponents as faceless demons -- especially if you know that you are going to see them on the ballfield that weekend.
There are lots of fancy management techniques for team building that are justly ridiculed as so much wasted frou-frou. Certainly, no one would suggest "trust exercises" for Nancy Pelosi or John Boehner. But Congress could certainly use a timeout from the relentless partisan sniping, something like the World War I Christmas truce when German and Allied soldiers came out of the trenches to sing a couple of songs together. For starters, how about a little bit of casual, off-the-record socializing? Maybe a Friday afternoon -- bring the spouse and kids along for some ice cream and pizza? Only one rule -- no politics allowed.