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An Iran deal protest outside the US Capitol in September 2015.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

What it’s like to be a political moderate working in a ridiculously polarized Senate

The phone calls always started in the late afternoons. Some days it was just an angry rant or two. On other days they kept coming until I thought I could feel steam coming through the receiver. Before the vote on the Iran nuclear negotiations, a man asked whether we would surrender to the ayatollah. A woman once asked if she had called the right number to stop abortions.

They were all wrong numbers — my phone number at Sen. Mark Warner’s office was just a few digits away from that of the main Senate switchboard. I was hearing from all the Americans who were too outraged about politics to dial straight.

The calls came from across the country, from the right and left. They were rude, invariably angry. And the anger was rooted in one place: frustration that the Senate wasn’t acting decisively on the particular issue they cared about.

One of my colleagues on the House side confessed that his boss had made up his mind early on the Iran deal and never even asked for a memo on it

I’m a political moderate — a Democrat who leans liberal but still speaks the language of Texas, my first home. I was glad to receive an offer from Warner’s office, Warner being a moderate Democrat like myself, for a year-long national security fellowship. I looked forward to seeing firsthand whether political moderation and compromise were still alive.

When I began work in January 2015, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had promised to restore "regular order" to the Senate – a phrase that was tossed about with abandon but that few, when pressed, could precisely define. Broadly, it meant the Senate would operate under its own rules.

But the Senate I observed was not the one I’d hoped for, and it didn’t seem orderly. For some pieces of legislation, senators could file virtually unlimited amendments, so that several hundred amendments might be filed for a single bill. And under closely held schedules, one never knew which ones might be called to the floor at any given time. It wasn’t a recipe for serious policymaking.

How partisanship and grandstanding turn politics into a charade

Case in point was the Iran negotiations that dominated 2015. Many senators and staffers took the issue seriously. I did see genuine debate and expertise, particularly among moderate Democrats. But for others, the questioning of administration officials over Iran appeared to be a charade for political showmanship, a recitation of questions that had been answered repeatedly already in other briefings.

The more I watched for policy and learning, the more I saw performance. One of my colleagues on the House side who was an expert in these issues confessed that his boss had made up his mind early on the Iran deal and never even asked for a memo on it.

As the year progressed, angry people kept calling. A man called us lazy and overpaid. I tried to tell him that the problem was really internal dysfunction, but he hung up on me. My colleagues offered to request a number change. I demurred. By this time, I had grown accustomed to the callers. They made me feel as though I had my finger on the pulse of something important.

It’s no secret that Americans are angry. A 2015 Gallup poll found that most Americans believe Congress is out of touch with average Americans (79 percent), focused on the needs of special interests rather than constituents (69 percent), and corrupt (52 percent). Further, as an important Pew survey found and Vox previously reported, the people who participate in American politics are more ideological and partisan, as well as angrier, than those who don’t.

Congress, in response, resorts to symbolism and grandstanding instead of compromise. But the more Americans on both sides insist on ideological purity, the more grandstanding we get. That’s the problem, I wanted tell the callers: not corruption but political purity. By insisting that Congress act in a certain way and rejecting compromise on the issue they care about, the callers were contributing to the culture of grandstanding and stonewalling.

Proof compromise is possible: It happens on issues that don't fall along ideological lines

A few months into the job, I was offered the opportunity to help on an issue almost no one was following — the adoption crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Hundreds of international families, including Americans, had legally adopted children from the DRC. But in 2013 the DRC blocked their departures from the country, so these children were in limbo. Some children had even died of disease while waiting to go to their adoptive families.

The first meeting I attended on the DRC crisis was unlike anything I had seen on Capitol Hill before. There was no clear ideological divide on the issue, just reasonable people who differed reasonably over the best solution.

I was proud to be part of Sen. Warner's efforts to draft a bipartisan, bicameral letter to the DRC government calling for action. And I hoped that the letter, along with other efforts by our Democratic and Republicans colleagues, would make a difference.

It was what I dreamed of when I went into policy: Republicans and Democrats sitting together, where all smart ideas are welcome and politics does what it should –- sorting through competing ideas to achieve the best possible outcome. It was the political equivalent of unicorns and rainbows. But the only reason we could operate this reasonably was because the issue didn’t fall along ideological lines. No interest groups were calling in and telling anyone not to budge.

When constituents call in and tell their representatives not to budge on an issue, those members get a free pass to do nothing

I believe firmly in democratic participation and transparency. And so it pains me to recognize that Americans who choose to participate in politics are angrier and more ideological than those who do not, and that this ideological participation in politics leads to greater polarization and gridlock.

On issues in which interest groups were heavily involved – infrastructure, immigration, and attempts to defund Planned Parenthood and the Affordable Care Act, to name a few, gridlock resulted. There was barely any policy, just maneuvering. Only the worst sorts of political types like this sort of thing.

Over the course of the year, I witnessed the way in which Washington’s gridlock is the result of the America’s polarization. It is not something that begins on Capitol Hill. Washington may manifest the most symptoms, but the disease of gridlock affects every state. That doesn’t mean that moderates don’t exist, of course. It’s just that we rarely heard from them.

When constituents call in and tell their representatives not to budge on an issue, those members get a free pass to do nothing. They can make symbolic speeches, denounce the other side for ruining the country, and avoid the real work of political compromise. Their staffers will be like my friend who never even had to write the policy memo on Iran.

Why I still have hope for government's ability to do good

I left Sen. Warner’s office in January. Strangely, I almost miss the callers. But there’s something I want to tell them. The big issues may not be moving, and we need to fix that, but in the meantime the little ones are. Things get done precisely where the ideological battles aren’t happening.

A few months after I left the job, on a rainy spring day, I was at the library with my daughter when I noticed a woman with a little girl looking my way.

"We have a raincoat just like that," the mother said. "It’s at home." I smiled.

"This raincoat," she gestured to the girl, "has rows and rows of airplanes. Airplanes for the one that took her home from the Congo."

I asked if she had adopted from the DRC, and she said she had. I took a deep breath and asked if it had been hard. She gave me a deep look that said everything.

I told her I had just left a job with Sen. Warner, and she told me she had worked with our office on the issue. The little girl in perfect braids was almost 3, only slightly older than my own daughter. The majority of her young life so far had been spent waiting to come home to her adoptive mom and dad in the United States. We introduced the two children. They blinked, blithely unaware of the complex geopolitics across two continents that had to come together before they could meet.

The reason I wanted to spend a year on the Hill in the first place was because I believed the government could still do good things. And we did do good things, although I’m saddened by what we didn’t accomplish. The callers reminded me of how easy it is to fall into cynicism and give up on the process. But by the end, I had found at least a small reason to remain hopeful.

There is something profound about the Congress of the most powerful nation on Earth channeling its efforts so that little girls and boys can go home to their families. And thinking about how these two girls would have the same quality of life now, and of all of the people who worked so hard to bring this girl home, I was struck with the awesome power and responsibility of our Congress to do as much good as it possibly can.

Two little girls in raincoats, both of them now Americans. Hundreds of members of Congress, representing millions of Americans who want to do good things. And sometimes, when we don’t get in our own way, we still do.

Lauren Kosa was a 2015 Legis fellow with the Brookings Institution in the US Senate, where she served as national security fellow in Sen. Mark Warner’s office. She is a writer in the DC area.


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