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Members of Congress Should Live Together, But Not in Dorms

“…I propose the Republican Party and the Democratic Party collectively raise money from private donors to build a 535-unit townhouse neighborhood in Washington, D.C., where all of our elected representatives will live together along with their families…”

Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska recently launched a fascinating critique of the dysfunctional state of the United States Senate with his recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for—among other things—the abolition of the 17th Amendment. In his proposal to “Make the Senate Great Again” by eliminating the direct election of senators, he suggested various other reforms to return a sense of collegiality and debate to the esteemed legislative body. Perhaps the most compelling idea focuses on the need for senators to have legitimate bipartisan, across-the-aisle relationships to promote real cooperation. Specifically, Senator Sasse believes senators need to live together in order to work together. The suggestion is not only brilliant, but knowing Americans will never give up directly electing their representatives, the idea of senators living in a single community may be the most feasible aspect of his proposal.

What the United States Congress and contemporary American society are missing is a common vision and sense of community about the tasks of governing. In the past 25 years, we have digressed from simple issue-based differences into bitter partisan animosity. It does not have to be this way for even the most vigorous of disputes. What Senator Sasse envisions (and our political leaders need) is a return to the spirit of the relationship between Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill. These two statesmen were fiercely loyal members of their political parties, but they were equally loyal to the “United” States of America. They were also deeply respectful of each other. In fact, President Reagan once quipped, “Tip, if I had a ticket to Heaven, and you didn’t have one, I would give mine away and go to Hell with you.” Who among our politicians today has the character, strength, and authenticity to make such a pronouncement today? The same relationship existed between Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and their friendship should inspire respect and collaboration, rather than the bitter disrespect their deaths have caused.

Republicans and Democrats and independents need a commitment to a common national identity and a renewed sense of purpose as neighbors and community members. The downside of the tribalism and partisanship that has infected the past 30 years is an inability and unwillingness to understand views different from their own. Recent books like Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort have exposed how ideological divides devolved into geographical and community divisions. Rigidity of party platforms (and identification) explains why citizens and voters can no longer civilly discuss the issues. Even worse, our political leaders cannot allow themselves to get along, less they risk ridicule, exile, and primary challenges from within their own party. In the 1960’s, congressional representatives voted with their party roughly two-thirds of the time. These days party compliance approaches 93%, which means that voters truly cannot vote for the candidate as opposed to the party, though many Americans profess a desire to do just that.

I want their spouses to know each other. I want their families to spend time with each other. I want their children to play together.

There is clearly no welcome mat in political discourse anymore. Neither party is the big tent it claims that it wants to be, and neither is welcoming of diversity, dissent, or disagreement. And, the division starts at the top, as our political leaders do not really know each other, do not spend time together, do not relate to each other, and, honestly, do not even seem to care about each other. Too often their constituents feel the same way, and they have pretty much stopped talking to each other. It is the talking that is the most important part, and genuine, authentic conversation is what Senator Sasse hopes to restore. My dad, who worked for many years in personnel and labor relations, lived by a commitment to regular effective communication. As long as people are talking, he would say, there is always hope. As long as communication is happening, no relationship is over.

So, rather than senators living in a dorm, eating, drinking, and playing Uno together, I propose the Republican Party and the Democratic Party collectively raise money from private donors to build a 535-unit townhouse neighborhood in Washington, D.C., where all of our elected representatives will live together along with their families in one community. I want their spouses to know each other. I want their families to spend time with each other. I want their children to play together. I want them all to have huge congressional neighborhood block parties together. I want them to take walks and have coffee and play softball and have cookouts together. And I want them to be neighbors and community members and perhaps even friends.

Granted, some may argue that politicians should live “among their people” and not within the Beltway. And, I agree; they should spend time in their districts. However, even in their own districts, members of Congress likely are not spending time with many of their constituents from the other party anyway. They are, instead, attending rallies and fundraisers with people from their own party, rather than developing authentic relationships with voters on the other side. In fact, while statistics indicate that Democrats and Republicans do sometimes live in the same neighborhoods, they tend to align with neighbors of the same party, or they limit any talk of politics when they are not around like-minded people. That is not healthy. It is not that we should not discuss politics and cultural issues; we should learn to do so as neighbors and friends.

So, if Republicans and Democrats are sincere in their desire for a better and more united country, they should commit to Senator Sasse’s vision. Both political parties should use their vast financial resources to revitalize a part of Washington D.C., and the community they build could be an example and a model of how we can live together and become a stronger community and a “United” States of America again. If Republican and Democratic leaders want to help this country, they need to show us they can be neighbors, and then perhaps we can all work towards being a community again.

Michael Mazenko is a writer and educator in Colorado. He has served as a “Colorado Voices” columnist for The Denver Post.

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