Each class chooses its own themes for study and discussion, ranging from civility and public confidence to mass media and technology’s effect on democracy. They meet monthly and hear from distinguished experts in a variety of fields. At the end of each class’s term, the fellows produce a report on their findings and recommendations.
One of the conclusions reached by nearly every class is that their bosses should be able to get along as well as the fellows had in working together on projects of common interest. But they understand how such hopes for their bosses are realistically hampered by little things such as constituents’ opinions, electoral demands, interest group pressures and party leadership expectations. Moreover, Members do not have the luxury that fellows do of meeting once a month for two or three hours to get to know each other personally and develop a respect for each others’ views.
I recently read a sad account of two young staffers who had developed a close friendship but worked for Members of opposing parties. The staffers thought they might be able to parlay their friendship into one between their bosses to work on issues of mutual concern. Their bosses were sympathetic but apologetic: Given peer pressures within their respective caucuses, it wasn’t going to happen.
Nevertheless, there are other instances of Members reaching out and working on issues in a bipartisan ways that are not threatening to the partisan balance of power in Congress. Just look at the 300-plus informal caucuses in the House (known as Congressional Member Organizations or CMOs), most of which are bipartisan.
Granted, most are engaged primarily in information gathering and sharing. However, some of the groups do work together on legislative solutions to real problems, and their shared staff play a quiet yet vital role in the success of these efforts. It is a side of the Capitol Dome that doesn’t get much sunlight.
Don Wolfensberger is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.