Jason Grumet is the founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit that promotes constructive compromise on polarizing issues. On Tuesday, Grumet spoke with Harrison Cramer about steps to increase bipartisanship on the Hill.
There’s been widespread condemnation of the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border. Does it take something like that to get a bipartisan response these days?
The country and the Congress have become pretty immune to the coarseness and divisiveness of our current politics, and I think a lot of people have been wondering: Is there a bottom? It seems that a 2-year-old wailing for her mother in a chain-link cage in a former Walmart may be what it takes to shock the nation’s collective consciousness.
I think there’s reason to hope that 500 members of Congress and 10 million Americans are waking up on Wednesday and thinking a little harder about what America stands for. It’s a tragic situation, but I think there’s a possibility that this will remind our leaders that there are some core values that we all hold firmly enough, and which can compel us to overcome the disincentives for cooperation.
So does that mean there’s a bipartisan path forward on immigration reform?
Several months ago, there was a very constructive lane for immigration reform that the administration was a part of. … I think we have seen that possibility unravel over the past several months, but I don’t believe the administration can withstand this combination of broad-based bipartisan [pressure] and compelling visual evidence that family separation is simply not consistent with American values.
Are there areas besides immigration where Congress can build bipartisanship?
Democracy is a momentum game, not unlike college basketball, and there have been a handful of modest but serious successes. … Senator [Mike] Crapo, joined by a number of Democrats on the Banking Committee, advanced the first significant banking-reform legislation since Dodd-Frank. A bunch of things came through in the bipartisan budget act—efforts to extend the Children’s Health Insurance Program, efforts to support a family agenda, a child tax-credit in the tax bill. Senators [Orrin] Hatch and [Ron] Wyden had a bipartisan effort around chronic care legislation, which seeks to make it possible for people to age in their homes with more dignity. And I think when you look at what’s happening on the floor right now, there’s a lot of [bipartisan] focus … on the opioid crisis.
Are there rule changes in the House and the Senate that might help?
I am a strong supporter of directed spending, commonly described as earmarks. The fact that we make it almost impossible for [members of] Congress to do something popular in their own districts is part of the reason they’re unwilling to do the things that serve the national interest, that are sometimes unpopular.
Something else that’s really important: We’ve weakened the committee structures. Both houses put limits on committee chairs. [This] didn’t empower the rank and file. What happened is leadership absconded with the legislative agenda. So now you can have a committee work for a year, hold dozens of hearings, pass bipartisan legislation, and the leadership won’t even let it get a vote.
Are you concerned that President Trump’s divisive rhetoric could undermine attempts at bipartisanship?
There’s this concept of creative disruption, where mutations in the system destroy the old and welcome the new. I think the president … has been quite effective in breaking things up. The question now is if he has the will, and the capacity, to put things back together. The fact that he’s been fanning division for much of the last year and a half is troubling—but if he has a Democratic House to deal with, and he wants to accomplish things, lo mein with Chuck and Nancy could be back on the menu.
Those sorts of get-togethers seem unusual. What can be done to build relationships across party lines?
The premise that members of Congress spending time together in private is somehow a corrupting influence is at odds with the way that anybody actually creates friendships—or creative ideas. The idea that we’re going to expect members to collaborate while their most aggressive constituents are tuned in is crazy.
One of the essential purposes of the Bipartisan Policy Center is to try to create the infrastructure to support members who want to work together. We host monthly [meetings] for Senate legislative directors, just to get together. … We have a new effort called the American Congressional Exchange, which gets Republicans and Democrats to spend weekends in each other’s districts. And we’ve done now four trips—we started off with Jack Bergman visiting Stephanie Murphy, and Jimmy Panetta from California is visiting Andy Barr from Kentucky this weekend. It sounds so quaint, but it’s really important.