We created the House Center Aisle Caucus and invited colleagues from both parties for dinners at a Chinese restaurant (chosen for its proximity to the Capitol and ease on our wallets). Every dinner had the same rule. First, pick a politically contentious issue. Second, state our disagreements. Third, put aside those disagreements and spend the rest of the dinner focusing on areas of consensus.
Those dinners taught me the most important lesson I’d learned in 16 years of service in the House. Democrats and Republicans will disagree on about 70 percent of controversial issues. That’s fine. Nothing wrong with it. There’s a reason Tim was a Republican and I’m a Democrat. We each had our own ideological bents. The problem is that Congress spends most of its time fighting intractably on the 70 percent , where agreement is impossible, and little time on the 30 percent where agreement awaits.
Dinners with Tim Johnson and the Center Aisle Caucus were refreshing, liberating, empowering. I learned that a particular Republican who I considered a blowhard when he appeared on Fox News had a deeply thoughtful position on presidential excesses under the War Powers Act. I learned that another Republican, whom I barely knew, had studied and formulated meaningful proposals to end childhood hunger around the world that easily united conservatives and progressives.
I learned that Democrats and Republicans can actually get along and advance thoughtful policy along the way.
Then came the Tea Party in 2010. Membership in the Center Aisle Caucus was being used against Republicans in attacks from the right. They were portrayed as RINOs, traitors. They weren’t supposed to be civil; they were supposed to be combatants. The center aisle was fertile ground for weak-kneed compromise. It was quicksand for rigid ideology. (In fairness, uber progressives level identical charges at moderate Democrats).
Our membership dwindled. Our meetings became more about the meal than the meaning. The Center Aisle Caucus became narrower and lonelier, like an abandoned road, until it simply vanished.