With the 113th Congress on track to be even less productive than the 112th (the least productive in U.S. history), it can be difficult to rally much optimism in our Washington, D.C., leaders.
Indeed, partisanship on the Hill has become so intractably divisive that compromise is viewed more akin to abandoning a trench under fire than crossing the proverbial aisle. With so few venturing into this no man’s land, critical reform—including deficit reduction and an immigration overhaul—continues to be sacrificed for political posturing. The American public is rightfully disenchanted. Not only were the four leaders of the House of Representatives and Senate lambasted in a recent Gallup survey, Congressional approval at large is only at 11 percent — barely above the all-time low of 9 percent inflicted following October’s government shutdown. President Obama has likewise not escaped the public’s wrath; his 45 percent favorable rating is near his all-time low. (He checks in at a paltry 40 percent favorability in a recent Reuters poll.)
In the midst of this disillusionment with our federal government, I view a way forward in two groups: the experienced and the hopeful.
First, let’s look to the experienced. The National Journal recently recognized Sen. Orrin Hatch as the senator who has sponsored or cosponsored the most enacted bills. Sen. Hatch’s phenomenal success in enacting 742 bills is even more breathtaking when considering that the median senator, David Vitter, sponsored or cosponsored only 78.
Admittedly, Hatch has the advantage of having served in the Senate for 37 years. Yet it is precisely the early traditions shared by senior legislators that brings me hope. Hatch and his veteran colleagues recall the decades of functional governing when bipartisanship was grounds for applause—not a special interest witch hunt. In the frank words of the ninth most prolific, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), "bipartisanship was the norm in the Senate."
In a 2009 U.S. News op-ed, Vice President Joe Biden likewise attributed Hatch’s success to his commitment to put principle before partisanship: "What sets him apart and makes him an effective legislator is his willingness to find common ground with Democratic counterparts when he believes it is the right thing to do — even when it isn’t the politically convenient thing to do. … I served alongside Sen. Hatch for 33 years. We hailed from different parties, different parts of the country, and different ideological traditions. But in those 33 years, he and I also shared more than a few legislative victories." The current Congress would do well to reflect on the collaborative tradition of the senior caucus.
My second cause for optimism are the hopeful. According to a recent Pew poll, 49 percent of millennials (individuals between the ages of 18 and 33) believe that "the country’s best years are ahead," which exceeds the response from the Gen Xer, Boomer and Silent generations. In addition to this expectancy of progress, millennials readily unite to evoke change.
Celebrated sociologists Morley Winograd and Michael Hais view these characteristics as indicative of a rising "civic generation." They have repeatedly equated millennials to historically impactful generations including the Founding Fathers, the generation that elected Lincoln, and the "Greatest Generation" that won World War II. Interestingly, these transcendent generations emerge from the most perilous events in U.S. history. Winograd and Hais assert that millennials’ anxious beginnings amid terrorism, war and a financial meltdown is, and will continue to, galvanize their intense focus on "resolving social challenges and building institutions."
I have the daily privilege of engaging with our young adults at the University of Utah. I can unequivocally attest that not only are millennials the most educated, collaborative and service-oriented generation, they also are the most pragmatic. According to the think tank Third Way’s Michelle Diggles, millennials "want to know what works and are willing to take ideas from each side [and] eschew ideological purity tests."
Ultimately, if our government is to move beyond the current gridlock, it must embrace the collaborative traditions of our experienced lawmakers and the practical action of our emerging leaders.
Kirk L. Jowers is the University of Utah’s director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics and chief advisor to the Office for Global Engagement. He is also a partner in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Caplin & Drysdale. Ellesse S. Balli contributed to this article.
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