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Chaffetz and Cummings Set Tone for Future Bipartisanship

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POGO has repeatedly voiced our concern about congressional gridlock, but a new bipartisan partnership in the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has us hopeful for a more functional legislative environment when the 114th Congress begins in January 2015. Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), who is hoping to be the new Committee Chairman, and Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the Ranking Member, have recently taken turns visiting each other’s districts in order to better understand the realities of constituents far different from their own. It was an opportunity for the congressmen to give each other, in the words of Cummings, “an idea of what I’m fighting for.”

In July, The Washington Post reported on Chaffetz’s trip to Maryland’s 7th District, where Cummings showed his colleague around his native Baltimore and surrounding area. While walking around a densely populated area of the city, a constituent asked Cummings what he would do to address the “food desert” that plagues much of the district, a term used to describe a lack of access to nutritious food in urban areas. Chaffetz, whose rural farming and mining district bears little resemblance to inter-city Baltimore, had never heard the term before and asked for clarification. The two later visited a senior center, where they discussed the value of Social Security, and then talked to patients at an AIDS clinic.

Instead of simply reading a staff report about the issues faced by Cummings’ constituents, Chaffetz got to walk a mile in some very unfamiliar shoes and to internalize struggles that are largely unfelt by citizens of rural Utah. What better way to build a bipartisan relationship than taking time to see the other side’s point of view?

The roles were reversed this past week when Cummings visited Chaffetz’s district, which stretches from the southern border of Salt Lake City deep into rural southeastern Utah. The Salt Lake Tribune followed the Representatives as they flew from the state capital to Moab. From the plane, Chaffetz pointed out his district’s unique geographical features, teaching Cummings about the political disputes that put Utah’s mostly Republican leaders at odds with environmentalists and federal bureaucrats. Later, the congressmen sat down with a group of rural commissioners who called for more control of the lands in their areas, which are overwhelmingly controlled by the federal government.

Cummings was surprised to learn that some ranchers could trace their family lineage and land ownership back seven or eight generations, a foreign concept for the Representative whose father was a sharecropper, whose forefathers were slaves, and whose constituents live an urban reality far removed from issues facing rural landowners. He noted that policymakers in Washington, like himself, should “make an effort to get to know these people before instituting rules that could change their way of life.”

Last Tuesday, Cummings and Chaffetz appeared on Joe Scarborough’s MSNBC morning show to discuss their exchange. When asked how the visits broadened their horizons, Cummings shared, “[The visit] made me a lot more sensitive to what his constituents are dealing with.”

Chaffetz continued, “If we’re actually going to pass some legislation that’s going to be meaningful, it’s going to have to be bipartisan, so you better darn well reach out and get out of your comfort zone and actually—just don’t throw political barbs but actually do something.”

Of course, this story of congressional friendship has a political slant. Chaffetz has been clear about his intention to succeed Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) as Committee Chairman in the next Congress. Cummings, who is the ranking member on the Committee, and Issa have sparred repeatedly and publicly over the 2012 killings in Benghazi, Republican accusations that the Internal Revenue Service had specifically targeted conservative tax-exempt groups, and numerous other partisan disputes. Their combative relationship reached a climax in March when Issa abruptly ended a committee hearing on the IRS scandal and cut off Cummings’ microphone while he was criticizing the Chairman’s leadership.

Cummings shared with Scarborough, “We’ve gotten used to leaving Washington without getting things done. And Joe, you’re right, when you and I worked together we got things done, and I’ve worked with other Republicans; we’ve gotten things done. There are issues that I think our committee needs to be dealing with, so if we can get away from throwing the bombs and really concentrate on why we are there, as opposed to who we’re fighting against we concentrate on who we are fighting for, I think we can get things done for the American people. And I’m determined to do that.”

Chaffetz and Cummings seem to be in the minority in this opinion, though. The general perception in Congress appears to be that the most effective political strategy is to demonize the other side rather than to work together to identify and address the problems facing our nation. But, as Scarborough pointed out about working with the other side, “we got things done and it was good for the country and it was good for both of us politically, too….Fewer and fewer people in Washington, DC, understand that…the screaming, yelling, pointing at each other—that’s the short game. The long game is actually getting things done for your constituents.”

POGO will be redoubling our efforts to help Congress so that it is once again a meaningful and productive institution. Breaking the partisan political cycle that has debilitated Washington requires the kind of willingness to work together that Cummings and Chaffetz are demonstrating through their visits to each other’s districts. We are hopeful that this bipartisan effort will be replicated by other Members of Congress eager to, as Chaffetz put it, “actually get some stuff done.”

By: Max Johnson
Intern, POGO

Max Johnson photo At the time of publication Max Johnson was an intern with the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Government Accountability

Related Content: Congressional Oversight

Authors: Max Johnson

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