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GILLETTE: Searching for a bridge in partisan divide

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By Graham Gillette | Special to Iowa Watchdog

DES MOINES — Federal officials Tuesday delivered news that the country has grown accustomed to hearing: In just more than a month it will run out of money to pay its bills, setting up what could prove to be another contentious, partisan fight in Congress and more gridlock.

BRIDGING THE DIVIDE: If we want elected officials to cooperate and work together, we need to elect people with an interest in doing so.

The question is will Congress reverse course and put politics and its self-serving bickering aside to craft a deal that puts the best interests of the people they serve — taxpayers — ahead of their own?

We are sick of the constant partisan fighting in Washington, D.C., that seems to have become the new norm. Congress’s approval level sunk below 20 percent last fall, according to Gallup Poll figures. But, despite our skepticism and discontent, we fail to do anything about it.

Apparently, we despise Congress, but like our congressmen.

Take Iowa for example. The state’s voters handily re-elected its four U.S. House members in November, despite solid opposition and contentious races. Its U.S. senators, Republican Chuck Grassley and Democrat Tom Harkin, have held their seats for decades. Maybe, like me, Iowans are optimists that those holding elected office will wake up and make an effort to change the tone of politics in 2013.

Others, however, are not.

Take pollster J. Ann Selzer, a leading expert in predicting elections. She conducts the decades-old Des Moines Register poll and is a pollster for Bloomberg News.

“The Republican and Democrat leaders lack the ability to convince members to tow the party line,” Selzer said. “There is little party leaders can do to help Congressmen win votes back home and, as this election proved, most in Congress are not at risk of losing their seats anyway.”

Parties have lost considerable sway in recent years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizen’s United decision, as have party leaders who no longer can use earmarks to gain the larger support of its members.

The court’s ruling allowed candidates to circumvent the traditional party structure for campaign support during elections and, instead, bring in outside dollars. The funds come largely from nonprofits that do not have to disclose donors who give them unlimited amounts of money to promote their self-interests.

Prior to the Supreme Court decision, candidates relied on their parties for dollars, organizational support and messaging.

And, as demonstrated by the takeover of the Iowa Republican Party by former staffers and supporters of former Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, a party apparatus easily is co-opted by a subset of a party’s base. More and more donors are sitting on the sidelines, giving directly to candidates or creating their own organizations.

The power of party leaders has also been diminished.

Take Speaker of the House John Boehner, an Ohio Republican who retained his leadership position in a vote last week despite opposition within his party. Boehner doesn’t wield the power of his predecessors, who used earmarks as leverage to keep caucus members in line. That’s because if a member of Congress wanted a new bridge back home, he had to offer his support for leadership-backed efforts in exchange for the needed funding. Congressional members did away with earmarks for pet projects several years ago as part their so-called austerity efforts.

Lawmakers no longer have to cooperate with party leaders and those on the other side of the political aisle to shore up support in the districts they represent. For many, job security is unrelated to the success of their party or, dare I say, a broader national interest.

Depressed, I tried to convince myself Washington could be different. Searching for proof the partisan divide can be bridged, I turned to Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, and state Sen. Bob Dvorsky, a Democrat from Iowa City.

When asked if there is anything they have learned from the 2012 campaign and gridlock in Congress, Dvorsky said no. Branstad provided a list of his legislative accomplishments last year before answering no. Not exactly encouraging responses.

But maybe there is something Congress can learn from Iowa lawmakers when it comes to reaching across the aisle to accomplish what’s in the best interest of those they serve.

For the past two years, Republicans have maintained control of the governor’s office and the House, while Democrats have held a slight majority in the Senate. This year will be no different when lawmakers convene Monday.

During that time, lawmakers worked with Branstad to reach a two-year budget agreement that put an end to the bad budgeting practices of the past and reduced the size of government. Both parties made the tough decisions necessary to move the state forward.

“This could not have been done without the governor and the Legislature — including a Democratic Senate and Republican House — working together,” Branstad said. “It wasn’t easy, but we accomplished great things.”

In the end, though, it comes down to the voters. If we want elected officials to cooperate and work together, we need to elect people with an interest in doing so.

Graham Gillette is a former staff member for state and national political candidates and has served as a senior government adviser. He lives in Des Moines where he works as a public affairs and communications consultant to corporate and nonprofit organizations. He began his career in Florida before moving to Washington, D.C. Gillette returned to Iowa in 1993.