Fresh from a conference called "Breaking the Stalemate: Renewing a Bipartisan Dialogue," I am fired up to extend that discussion.
First, let me say that I was proud to attend a conference with such colleagues as former Speaker of the House Bob Michel, who worked tirelessly to build consensus, and former Representative Amo Houghton, who let the merits of legislation, not party affiliation, determine his position on that legislation.
After winning the 2008 Presidential election, Senator Barack Obama, crossed the political aisle and nominated me for Secretary of Transportation. Serving together in Congress, he and I had forged an effective collegial relationship. Similarly, I had also developed a great working relationship with his soon-to-be Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
In both relationships, we had an important factor that could have divided us: our party affiliations. But in both relationships, we had something far more important that brought us together: our desire to make life better for the great State of Illinois and for America.
That's really the only thing there is to talk about: making life better in America. Party affiliation might indicate a general approach to that goal, but the goal remains making life better for people--not parties.
The party is one tool we have for achieving that goal. But once we forget that it's just one tool in a plentiful kit, once we begin working to advance our party's interests over the people's interests, it's easy to lose our way.
Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, yesterday's keynote speaker, is a current example of someone practicing civility in Congress. Sen. Wyden talked yesterday about his work with Sen. Judd Gregg as a successful bipartisan partnership:
"What we've been able to do--not out of political convenience, but through principled bipartisanship--is show that a Democrat and Republican, instead of having the parties beat up on each other, can go out and take on these big interest groups that drain the revenue out of our nation."
When I was in Congress, I helped start a series of retreats aimed at building collegiality and diminishing bitter partisanship. I like to think that, when you get to know people on the other side of the aisle, it makes it harder to characterize those people as enemies.
Look, I'm not saying we should throw out party affiliation. Ours is a broad and diverse nation; differences are healthy. But good legislators also need to know how to look across the aisle to be effective and solve America's problems.
And I am not saying that we should elevate bipartisanship above the goal of good legislation and policy. Sometimes it may not be a workable option. But neither should we accept a political climate where partisanship is revered for its own sake.
That climate can lead to the belief that undermining the other party is good for the American people. It can lead to demonizing the other party's members to attract media attention.
It can lead to an environment where we no longer debate the merits of legislation; we only debate its authorship.
Good legislation and policy are good because they solve problems, not because they are introduced by Republicans or Democrats or whomever. And a bill or policy that is good but flawed can be made stronger by working across the aisle to understand the other side's perspective and to find opportunities for reasonable give-and-take.
But I worry that many have lost their ability to reach across that aisle and engage in civil dialogue. Worse, I worry that, in today's political climate, many never even consider attempting to discover whether they have that ability.
As a House member, I was more proud of arranging those retreats through the Bipartisan Planning Committee than nearly any other assignment.
Because preparing the fertile, bipartisan ground that helps Congress work most effectively--whether on transportation or national security--helps pave the way for the greater goal: government not for the parties, but for the people.