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New Madison Prize to Honor Compromise in Congress

Left to right: Former Congressman David Skaggs, former AU president Neil Kerwin, and Laura Skaggs
David Skaggs (left) and Laura Skaggs (right) join Neil Kerwin, former president of American University, to formalize their generous leadership gift to the university creating and sustaining the Madison Prize for Constitutional Excellence.

At a time when gridlock on Capitol Hill has replaced negotiation, and public approval of Congress has reached historic lows, former Congressman David Skaggs (D-Colo.) and his wife Laura have established a new award. The Madison Prize for Constitutional Excellence will honor legislators who recognize the necessity for compromise in politics and show that the public interest can transcend partisanship or, in the words of James Madison, “faction.”

The Madison Prize, endowed by Rep. and Mrs. Skaggs in partnership with American University’s School of Public Affairs, will be awarded after each biennial Congress to recognize one Member (a U.S. Representative or Senator) from each major political party (or an Independent who caucuses with one of the parties) whose service reflects an understanding that American government depends on working out differences, not insisting on ideological purity.

“I have a Boy Scout’s dedication to the ideals of our government,” said Skaggs. “I am a creature of the legislative branch, and was privileged to have been in Congress and before that in the Colorado legislature. That experience made me appreciate the wisdom that comes from the collective efforts of legislators to compromise and work things out. Maybe it will help if we hold up for some recognition and honor a model of compromise in the spirit James Madison had in mind.”

The Madison Prize will be awarded after the end of each two-year congressional session to recognize 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.

“We are fortunate David and Laura Skaggs have come to AU with this idea,” said James Thurber, Distinguished Professor of Government and founder and former director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at AU’s School of Public Affairs. “American University is the ideal place for the prize—we embrace and celebrate institution-builders. AU has love for Congress and a worry for Congress because today there is too much incivility, too much entrenchment. We want to honor those in Congress who work to make it more effective.”

Skaggs served 12 years in the U.S. Congress (1987-1999) as representative from the Second Congressional District of Colorado and three terms in the Colorado House (1981-1987). During his time on the Hill, he was a leader in efforts to improve the House of Representatives. He was the founding co-chairman with Congressman Ray LaHood (R-Illinois) of the House Bipartisan Retreats.

“A lot of people care deeply about our democracy and about making it work better,” said Skaggs. “But too many no longer understand that the Constitution requires compromise as essential to a working democracy.”

“Must partisan differences necessarily dissolve into ‘partisan warfare’ or into breaches of decorum?” asked Thurber. “Can we count on our political leaders to negotiate agreement? Can politicians disagree without being disagreeable? Surely the answer must be yes. The Madison Prize are an important next step to encouraging cooperation and civility and will celebrate people who don’t think compromise is a dirty word.”

American University’s School of Public Affairs will launch the initial Madison Prize selection process in fall 2018, with the inaugural prize awarded in early 2019 to two deserving members from the current 115th Congress.

For information on how you can help endow the Madison Prize please visit the website or contact Victoria Black, associate director of development, School of Public Affairs, at or (202) 885-2661.