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Everything You Wanted to Know About the Madison Prize

CCPS Director David Barker Explains SPA’s Bi-Annual Award for Bipartisanship

American University’s School of Public Affairs marks the end of the two-year congressional session by awarding the Madison Prize, bestowed upon one member of Congress from each major political party who best exemplifies respect for the institutional values of Congress and the need for compromise in a democratic society, traits outlined by James Madison in Federalist 10.

The Madison Prize, started in 2018 by an endowment from former U.S. Rep. David Skaggs (D-Colo.) and his wife Laura Skaggs, was first awarded to Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA), in part for their combined efforts resulting in passage of the 21st Century Cures Act and the SUPPORT Act, legislation that took steps to tackle hard-to-treat diseases, confront the opioid epidemic, strengthen mental health care, and advance medical innovation.

After a pandemic-induced hiatus in 2020, the Madison Prize is back again, and SPA, through its Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies (CCPS), is accepting nominations through October 31. Read more from CCPS Director and SPA Prof. David Barker on the principles behind the prize and qualities of a Madison Prize winner.

Q: Why and how did the Madison Prize come to fruition?

Barker: Well, it's really the brainchild of Representative Skaggs. He and my predecessor, [SPA Prof. Emeritus and former CCPS Director] James Thurber, made it happen. [The prize] is very consistent with the mission of CCPS, which is to foster democratic reasonableness.

Q: Congress is extremely polarized right now. In this climate, is it even possible to award the Madison Prize?

Barker: Believe it or not, but for as much as Democrats and Republicans obviously don't like each other, this has actually been a relatively productive Congress. They’ve signed a decent amount of legislation that is bipartisan and important, starting with the infrastructure package. But other things, too. So, we think we're going to have good candidates [for this nomination cycle].

Q: How does the nomination process work?

Barker: We open it up to anybody and everybody to recommend a member of Congress, and then we have a selection committee of six people [former U.S. Reps. Mickey Edwards and Connie Morella, NPR host and SPA Executive-in-Residence Ron Elving, Prof. Thurber, SPA Board of Advisors Member Gina Adams, and George Washington University Prof. Sarah Binder] who filter through the nominations and pick one Democrat and one Republican who can be from either chamber, either Senators or House members. We will award the prize to the 2022 winners at an event this coming spring.

Q: Why do we need recognition like the Madison Prize?

Barker: So much of the time, gridlock rules the day, and there is animosity across the aisle in Congress. That that isn't serving the public at all. And, oftentimes, we fail to make any meaningful progress on important policy issues that that affect everyone. So, the prize is the little bit that we can do to recognize those that try to work across the aisle and find common ground to make progress on all these things we want to do.

Q: Why do we need to have members of Congress who, as Madison would say, are “anti-faction”?

Because the country depends on it, right? Our system is designed to make it difficult to get things done – we have to get things through two legislative chambers, the courts can weigh in, there is the filibuster, which is constitutional but is a norm that exists—and then you layer on top of it the fact that we have a an evenly divided country between Democrats and Republicans, both of the electorate and in government, it just makes it really, really, really hard to make progress on all these issues that affect all of our lives in profound ways, whether it's health care or the economy or immigration or gun violence.

And I should add to that that there are lots of incentives for our elected representatives to not work together. That is the nature of our primary elections and system, and the nature of our districts, which are often drawn up [to be] overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican, which means that members of Congress run a big risk if they are seen as being too cozy with the other side, because they can wind up out of Congress. And so, when people who are brave enough to understand it’s not all about them, and it's not all about their party, but that it's about the country, and that we are supposed to be trying to work together for the common good, we want to celebrate them. Because, if we don’t, we're never going to make any progress on anything.

Nominations are now open for 2022.