Two former Congressmen discuss Washington gridlock, how to end it

Politics in the U.S. has become increasingly partisan over the years – and the ensuing gridlock in Washington, D.C., too often halts bipartisan collaboration and legislation on major issues.

Former Congressmen Patrick Murphy, a Democrat from Florida, and David Jolly, a Republican also from Florida, came to FIU recently to discuss this problem and ways to find common ground.

“Washington gridlock is an issue that this country faces and will face,” said John F. Stack, Jr., founding dean of the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs. “Here to give us perspective and possible solutions are two former members of Congress who have been in the trenches for many years, who understand the political process, who have confronted the tensions that rank-of-office translates to and who, I think, have been seasoned with an appreciation of just how difficult leadership is today.”

Kevin Evans, associate professor and director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Politics & International Relations, moderated the discussion.

Check out some of the key takeaways from their conversation:

  1. It may sound surprising, but gridlock is not always a bad thing.

“In many ways it’s part of our founding principles, part of our constitutional principles and theories,” Evans said. “Gridlock and conflict are built into the system and it’s not supposed to be easy, but, perhaps in some ways, the pendulum has swung too far, and perhaps it should be easier in a number of ways.”

It’s when gridlock dominates the system, Evans said, that it becomes problematic.

  1. Many factors – from systematic to technological – contribute to the partisan atmosphere.

“Gerrymandering, I would argue, is perhaps the biggest thing creating the partisanship in this country,” Murphy said.

Political gerrymandering is the dividing of the country into election districts to give one political party a majority in many districts while concentrating the voting strength of the other party into as few districts as possible.

“It insulates members of each party to represent only the voices within their party,” Jolly explained. “It protects them, but it also punishes them if they reach across the aisle. Because all of a sudden in a supermajority Republican district, if you compromise, you’re not a good enough Republican. In a supermajority Democratic district, if you compromise, you’re not a good enough Democrat.”

From left to right: Former Congressmen David Jolly and Patrick Murphy during the discussion with Kevin Evans, associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations.

Murphy also called out the heavy burden members of Congress face with fundraising.

“I joke with my friends that I’m a telemarketer with a cool title, sometimes,” Murphy said. He went on to explain that representatives can end up spending up to 30 or more hours a week making phone calls and asking for support for re-election.

Jolly echoed the sentiment, sharing his experiences during his first term in the House of Representatives and how his leadership team asked him to focus on fundraising, not carrying out his ideas.

Another issue that many people may not be aware of that Murphy brought up: cameras in committee rooms.

“Putting cameras in the corner sounds good,” Murphy said. “But guess what, every time there’s a camera, a member of Congress or an elected official is probably playing to that camera. That camera can be used to promote what they’re saying back home or can be used against them.”

  1. This gridlock can end. You need to help.

With such deeply rooted issues, a solution may seem impossible. But, there are ways to solve this, according to the men.

Some of the ideas the congressmen discussed included measures representatives can take, such as working hard to stay true to their convictions – even if it may mean feeling the consequences of it — and also having representatives spend more time in Washington, D.C., so they can foster relationships with people across the parties and within their own parties.

But, the two said, there is also something people can do: Vote.

The voter turnout during an average primary election is usually only about 15 percent, Murphy said. Voters have the power to elect officials who will represent their needs and, Jolly said, they have the power to lead voter-driven, ballot-based initiatives.

For people who consider themselves moderates within political parties – and wonder if there’s a place for them as both parties teeter toward the edges away from center — Jolly recommended involvement in their chosen party’s apparatus – whether a college party or local county. Their involvement will help them have greater chances of effecting change within their party.

“This was terrific,” Stack said at the event’s conclusion. “It was smart. Intelligent. We are honored to have you here.”

To watch the entire conversation, click here.