U.S. House of Representatives Peter King (R-NY), Henry Cuellar (D-TX), and John Delaney (D-MD) came to American University on Sept. 26 to share their takes on bipartisanship in Congress at an event sponsored by AU School of Public Affairs (SPA), The Hill, and the Kennedy Political Union.
SPA has been partnering with The Hill for a year, focused on bipartisanship issues, and SPA Dean Vicky Wilkins said the importance of this discussion has not diminished.
“Even in today’s highly polarized political climate, we think it’s important to celebrate examples of bipartisanship,” said Wilkins, citing Congressional cooperation on addressing the opioid epidemic and investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
The three lawmakers invited to AU are well-known on Capitol Hill for reaching across the aisle, noted editor-in-chief of The Hill, Bob Cusack, who moderated the event.
Rep. King, of New York, blamed cable television, social media, reapportionment, and the breakdown of party organization for the bitter divisions in Congress. “When people from the extremes of each party are elected in the primaries, it’s hard for them to negotiate deals once in Washington,” said King.
“In politics you always hear, ‘Why can’t you get along? Why can’t you work things out?’ As soon as you do, you are called a traitor,” said King.
Rep. Cuellar, of Texas, who describes himself as a blue dog Democrat, expressed the same frustration when people are asked to be bipartisan but criticized when they actually work with the opposing party.
Rather than being boxed in by party expectations, Cuellar says Democrats need to create a big tent party to allow varied points of view and work together. “The American people sent us here to get things done,” he said. “At the end of the day, I will vote for my district.” For Cuellar, that means paying attention to bridges, traffic, education, and health care.
King mentioned infrastructure as one potential area of bipartisan agreement in Congress.
Cuellar said the key to striking deals is relationships and being willing to sit down to talk with lawmakers from all viewpoints. “I’m a big believer in reaching out to get things done,” said Cuellar.
The first Democrat to declare his candidacy for president in 2020, Rep. Delaney from Maryland, said at the event that the central question facing the country was how to unite a divided country around a common purpose. He emphasized the need for leadership around policies where there is some bipartisan support such as building infrastructure, reforming the criminal justice system, enacting common sense gun laws, and protecting digital privacy.
Delaney advocated more public square debating and proposed the idea of Congress and the president having a televised three-hour debate on issues of the day, modeled after Great Britain’s tradition. “It would be transformative,” he said.
The next newsmakers event will take place in November 2018.