When Fried Pickles Lead to Better Policymaking

Ace program helps lawmakers build personal and working relationships

From right, Kentucky Rep. Andy Barr and California Rep. Jimmy Panetta visit a farm outside Lexington, Ky., during an exchange trip in June with the Bipartisan Policy Center. (Courtesy Bipartisan Policy Center)
From right, Kentucky Rep. Andy Barr and California Rep. Jimmy Panetta visit a farm outside Lexington, Ky., during an exchange trip in June with the Bipartisan Policy Center. (Courtesy Bipartisan Policy Center)
Posted September 24, 2018 at 5:01am

OPINION — A California congressman, born in Mexico, introduces a Republican colleague in America’s heartland to traditional Mexican hibiscus water while attending a Cinco de Mayo festival, like the one he started in his home district. Within 24 hours, they receive a classified defense briefing nearby at U.S. Strategic Command headquarters. In ways both lighthearted and serious, that’s how relationships are built under the Bipartisan Policy Center’s American Congressional Exchange program, or ACE.

Relationships are foundational. Just as it is hard to trust someone you don’t know, it’s also difficult to disparage a person with whom you’ve broken bread — or shared hibiscus water, eaten fried pickles or tasted olive oil on ice cream. And experiencing the world through the eyes and perspective of another is frequently illuminating.

The same holds true in Congress. Most people would agree we need a Congress that works better for the American people. Regardless of deep policy disagreements, the institution must operate with mutual respect, decency and civility — all key to forging collaborative solutions in a diverse nation.

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That is why ACE pairs up lawmakers from opposing parties for visits to each other’s districts.

A 2014 report from the BPC’s Commission on Political Reform — co-chaired by former Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle and Trent Lott, former Agriculture Secretary and Rep. Dan Glickman, and former Sen. Olympia Snowe — focused on making Congress functional again. The report found that lawmakers “are insulated from personal contacts with those of the other party. Members do not eat together, their families do not interact, and consequently they do not get to know each other well.” Consequently, it went on, “it is hard to imagine how members of opposing parties can find the time to make real overtures to each other on issues of shared interest.”

Through ACE, members of Congress can develop trust and understanding with each other and experience firsthand their colleagues’ motivations and concerns. They see issues through a different lens and often learn they have more in common than meets the eye — a critical first step to advancing effective legislation.

During the first exchange in January, Republican Jack Bergman of Michigan visited with Democrat Stephanie Murphy for a weekend in her Florida district. They met with Murphy’s constituents at locations as diverse as a VA medical center, a major university, area businesses and a U.S. Naval Support facility. Upon returning to Washington, the pair worked in tandem to improve opportunities for America’s servicemembers as they transition to becoming veterans.

“The personal interaction time is incredibly valuable,” Murphy said. “We discovered that while our districts are very different, we have a common connection back to the Vietnam War even though we are of different generations. I think when you establish those personal connections, it becomes easier to work together.”

Six more exchanges have since taken place: in Wilmington, Delaware; Omaha, Nebraska; Lexington, Kentucky; western North Carolina; the Olympic Peninsula of Washington; and the central coast of California. In August, Nebraska Republican Don Bacon made the first reciprocal trip when he visited Democrat Salud Carbajal in his California district, after Carbajal had visited him in Omaha in May.

During every trip, members have remarked on the importance of their candid conversations and getting to know one another as individuals — not just as colleagues or members of the other party — and how there is no substitute for bipartisan fellowship. As Bacon noted, when you become friends, “even when you disagree, at least you’re doing it in a much better and more professional way, and it allows for more common ground, even in your differences.”

More ACE trips will take place this year. The program has already led to a social gathering of freshman members of the House — some of whom participated in the program — to help strengthen cross-party relationships. We are planning similar events for the future.

As the BPC’s Commission on Political Reform said, developing friendships and bipartisanship is indispensable to fostering collaboration on policy matters and legislation. In my years as a Senate chief of staff, I often met with peers from both parties, which paved the road for our offices to work together. We knew that while our bosses had different views, we all had the nation’s best interests at heart.

With improved personal relationships, Congress will operate more effectively. And that’s a goal we all can get behind.

John Richter is a senior advisor at the Bipartisan Policy Center and served as chief of staff to former Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.