Can Young House Democrats and Republicans Save Congress From Destroying Itself?

June 4, 2017

The Future Caucus, formed in partnership with the nonprofit Millennial Action Project, instead makes an explicitly generational pitch. As MAP founder Steven Olikara puts it, the caucus invites its 29 members to think of themselves as peers with a set of shared problems to solve, instead of the latest wave of foot soldiers in a decades-old battle for Washington.

In case you’ve spent the last few years ignoring the headlines out of Washington—a remarkably prescient act of self-care, honestly—the bicameral legislature that our Founding Fathers carefully crafted some 250 years ago has devolved into a veritable horror show of howling zealots and uncompromising ideologues possessed with an insatiable desire to destroy the competition, whatever the costs. The numbers are grim: 68 percent of Republican voters and 62 percent of Democratic voters now believe that the other party is a threat to America, and nearly two-thirds admit that on the rare occasion that they do talk to someone from the other side, they learn that they have less in common than they thought. These findings all come from before Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, too.

Although things on Capitol Hill have merrily gone to hell, somehow, the next generation of politicians hasn’t been robbed of their youthful optimism just yet. Millennials tend to lean left, but they also like to pick their politics a la carte, happily cribbing ideas from across the ideological spectrum if they see something they like. (The fastest-growing party affiliation right now? “None.”) This is encouraging, but it also means that if you’re a young, fresh-faced member of Congress eager to roll up your sleeves, look beyond labels, and work with your colleagues to Get Things Done, it’s hard to imagine a worse political environment for you to enter that doesn’t prominently involve the Civil War. At this point, championing bipartisanship is like trying to fix the dishwasher yourself: It’s a noble goal, and you can find YouTube videos that offer tips on how to do it, but after a few grueling hours, you wish you had just called someone who knows what they’re doing and saved yourself the headache.

The co-chairs of the Congressional Future Caucus, Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and Florida’s Carlos Curbelo, do not share this pessimism. Most caucuses—groups of legislators who organize around a shared interest—end up eventually taking on an ideological bent, even when the caucus’ subject matter appears facially neutral. (Of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus’ 109 members, precisely two are Republicans. Curbelo is one of them.) The Future Caucus, formed in partnership with the nonprofit Millennial Action Project after the 2013 government shutdown for junior members of Congress tired of partisan brinksmanship, instead makes an explicitly generational pitch. As MAP founder Steven Olikara puts it, the caucus invites its 29 members to think of themselves as peers with a set of shared problems to solve, instead of the latest wave of foot soldiers in a decades-old battle for Washington.

On paper, Sinema and Curbelo seem like they were assembled in a laboratory to lead a brave band of open-minded, post-partisan lawmakers. Sinema, a centrist Democrat who was first elected to the House in 2012 at 36, is the first openly bisexual member of Congress and spent two years of her childhood living in an abandoned gas station after the bank foreclosed on the family home. Curbelo, a Republican who represents the Everglades and the Florida Keys, is the 37-year-old son of Cuban exiles who recently co-founded a bipartisan caucus designed to combat climate change. He declared nearly a year before Election Day that he would not support Donald Trump, and he became the first Republican to publicly use the word “impeachment” in conjunction with allegations that President Trump had obstructed justice. (When Mother Jones reported that Michigan’s Justin Amash had been the first GOP member to do so, Curbelo’s office apparently called to correct the record.) These two are a lot of things, and “another pair of generic older white dudes” is not one of them.

A Busted System

The “Washington is broken” narrative didn’t emerge by accident, though. It has a name, and that name is Mitch McConnell. In 2010, McConnell famously swore off bipartisanship altogether, publicly declaring that the Republican Party’s “single most important” goal had nothing to do with policy or lawmaking or making America a better place to live, but was instead ensuring that President Obama did not win re-election. Although he didn’t get his wish, he spent the ensuing six years stalling the legislative process at every turn, gambling (correctly) that voters would blame the party in the White House for the frustration and chaos in Washington. Since President Trump’s election, McConnell has stripped Senate Democrats of their longstanding ability to block judicial nominees and condemned Democrats as unprincipled obstructionists, likely because he is a craven, amoral hypocrite who long ago lost the ability to feel the human emotion of shame.

When I asked Sinema about who bears responsibility for the proverbial D.C. gridlock, she allowed that the McConnell-Boehner “kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can” approach to governance was “not helpful,” but she added that before Republicans took the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, it was the Democrats who never bothered to earn bipartisan support for their agenda. “Parts of Obamacare aren’t working well and need to be fixed,” she conceded. “But mostly, it’s an ideological debate that stems from having a major piece of legislation enacted into law without any support from the other party! If you look back at this country’s history, major legislation has always been bipartisan, because that’s how laws withstand the test of time.” In other words, Republicans continue to so fiercely oppose the Affordable Care Act in large part because they took its passage personally. To the GOP, Obamacare is not a policy to be improved, but a wrong to be avenged.

Curbelo, too, opined that Democrats deserve some of the blame for the state of affairs in D.C. However, when I mentioned McConnell’s pledge specifically, he alluded to a “major generational difference” on Capitol Hill, pointedly noting that “younger members tend to show a greater desire to work together, to have constructive relationships, and to highlight what we share in common,” and contrasting that “solutions-oriented” approach with “other models of conducting business in Washington—models that have clearly failed.”

Traditionally, power in Congress comes with seniority, which means that an alliance of optimistic rookies uninterested in extremism will eventually hit a wall. Sinema, who is entering her fifth year in the House, readily acknowledged that there are “institutional challenges” that come with being one of the chamber’s more junior members: Although she’s no longer at the bottom of the food chain, she says, she’s still pretty close. But what constituents don’t see is that, in her view, there’s a difference between institutional power and relationships-based power: As a sophomore member of the minority party last term, Sinema sponsored three bills that passed the House with bipartisan support, which she cites as evidence that even in a highly polarized climate, there’s still “a lot of quiet room” to get things done.

The War Over Health Care

Still, their enthusiasm for finding middle ground does not mean they agree on everything, or even on the important things. Since January, Curbelo has voted with the president nearly 93 percent percent of the time, and he was a yes-vote on the American Health Care Act, a bill that passed with… exactly zero bipartisan support. Curbelo allowed that the AHCA “isn’t perfect” and contains “elements he doesn’t like,” but explained to me that he wanted to “advance the legislation to the Senate” because he believes it’s “a discussion and debate worth having.”

Sinema politely demurred when I brought up Curbelo’s vote, reasoning that neither one of them drafted the AHCA, and that the nature of voting allows them to make only binary choices. (She also pointed out that if she only worked with people with whom she always agreed, she would find herself out of a job very quickly.) But Sinema did express frustration with Trumpcare because she sees its passage as emblematic of Congress’ failure to learn from its mistakes. “The House passed the AHCA without a single Democratic vote, and is now starting tax reform without even talking to Democrats, particularly moderate, pro-business Democrats like me” she said. “They’re setting themselves up for the same problems that the Democrats experienced.” Without a reservoir of goodwill, when the balance of power eventually tips back in the Democrats’ favor, they’ll have no reason to pick up the phone when their Republican counterparts call to ask for help.

Choosing to cross party lines on key issues can be a risky move for a legislator, whose next election is always, at most, just two years away. If something important gets done thanks to your bipartisan outreach efforts, great! You took a chance, and it paid off. But if you don’t succeed—or, tragically, if it takes just a bit longer than you expect—then you are an ineffective politician who stepped out of line and has nothing to show for it. Maybe when the next election rolls around, your base is a bit less enthusiastic, or your party’s congressional campaign committee is a little stingier, or your more moderate supporters decide that if you’re already drifting towards the middle, they might as well give your challenger a shot at the job. And just like that, you’re back to being a private citizen. It’s not hard to see why a newly-minted representative might think twice about their dealmaking ambitions after arriving in Washington, electing instead to toe the party line and fervently hope that consistency pays off come November.

Given how little interest either party has in publicly playing nice with the other right now—for God’s sake, the semi-official slogan of one of them is #RESIST—it’s easy to see Sinema and Curbelo’s efforts to play on both sides of an electrified fence as naive and idealistic. But doing so implies that the long-assumed death of civil discourse really is irreversible, and that future generations are already powerless to stop it. If this is true, then at the very least, it’s foolish and cynical to discourage the new guys from trying to formulate a better plan than Boehner and Ryan and McConnell ever managed to concoct. If we really can’t turn the ship away from the iceberg, we should be trying like hell to get lifeboats in the water, not sitting on the deck and making bitter, resigned comments about how we should have paid more attention in the first place.

Sinema, for her part, scoffs at the fatalists. “I think you can always find common ground, on something,” she says. “It might be on only one percent of the issues. But I think it’s our duty to look for that one percent. If we can’t come to an agreement, that’s okay! But we should still try.” Between the institutional barriers, the electoral pitfalls, and the fact that the majority leaders of both the House and the Senate seem cheerfully content to push their party’s agenda forward no matter how vociferously most Democrats protest, it looks like Sinema, Curbelo, and company have a lot of searching in front of them.

Can Young House Democrats and Republicans Save Congress From Destroying Itself?

Meet Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), the co-chairs of the Congressional Future Caucus who want to keep some semblance of democracy alive.

Rep. Sara Jacobs


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