Betsy Wright Hawkings , Jean Bordewich

Making Congress Great Again

Air Date: January 21, 2017

Jean Bordewich of the Hewlett Foundation and Betsy Wright Hawkings of Democracy Fund discuss how to overcome Congressional gridlock.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Make Congress Great Again. That’s the prompt we’re here to explore today. Joining me are two distinguished veteran congressional staffers. Jean Bordewich is program officer for democracy grantmaking at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Madison Initiative. The program is focused on combating the forces of hyper-partisanship and political polarization in Congress. Before joining the foundation, she was staff director of the US Senate Committee on Rules and Administration. Our other guest, Betsy Wright Hawkings, is program director of the Democracy Fund’s Governance Initiative, which seeks to foster dialogue across the ideological spectrum and support reform to reduce gridlock. Prior to her appointment, she was chief of staff to four members of the US House of Representatives. Welcome to you both.

BORDEWICH: Thank you.

WRIGHT HAWKINGS: Thank you, Alexander.

BORDEWICH: Thanks for having us.

WRIGHT HAWKINGS: Great to be here.

HEFFNER: I wanted to contextualize Congress for our viewers today by alluding to two statements, one from a Republican, one from a Democrat. There was a Democratic member of the US House representing California who said recently that it was not so illegitimate to think that California and western states ought to secede from the union, right? On the opposite end, you had a former Republican governor, Jeb Bush, and presidential candidate as we know, consider the possibility of a Constitutional Convention…


HEFFNER: Writing in the Wall Street Journal that there may be a need to reform structurally how we actually do business as a governing entity. This is in the more significant context of the last several election cycles, more American citizens voting for one party than the other party, the Democrats than the Republicans, and yet the outcome being more Republican representation in the US House of Representatives and the US Senate. This seems to be the 800 pound gorilla in the room insofar as it is challenging the basic norms of Democratic or Republican governance and the idea of representing interests proportional to the number of votes.

WRIGHT HAWKINGS: First of all, I think what you’re getting at is the conversation about the Electoral College, right? And uh, what the Electoral College ensures is that, um, that all the states have a voice, right? And essentially that everything in-between the east coast and the west coast can’t just be flyover country, but that the candidates have to engage with those states and those people as well. And I think, I think that um, what, what we hope to achieve at Democracy Fund, and I think, you know, Jean can add to this because we work very closely together, is to really facilitate dialogue so that the solution isn’t to secede, so that the solution is not to um, just talk even less to people who disagree with you but to really facilitate and support efforts to create, uh, to create consensus and, and really begin at the fundamental level of how do you do that, because it’s been long enough since Congress has effectively been able to do that in a consistent and meaningful basis that in some ways the, the members and certainly, um, the young staff that are there just don’t have experience doing it.

BORDEWICH: Yeah I, I share, I share Betsy’s belief that the, uh, the system as it’s currently structured can work. I don’t think we need a Constitutional invent—Convention to reinvent the structure of the government in order to get to a place where we can have a functional Congress. Uh, but a lot of these things that you’re talking about are built into our institutions and our structure from the earliest days. They’re also in some recent congresses, there were more votes nationwide for the House of Representatives, say for Democrats, than there was proportional representation, so I think there’s a sense that the gerrymandering issue that you brought up, um, is of interest to a lot of people. But I do think that, I believe in the union, so I’m not in favor, I live in California, I’m not in favor of secession. Uh, we fought a Civil War over that and I still think the union is the right idea. But I do think that uh, the way we use the rules and the structures as they currently exist, uh, could be done in different and a better way and uh, when you change the rules, it does change the dynamics, but I don’t think that changing the rules is the answer to the problems that we’re trying to address.

HEFFNER: Right, and I wasn’t alluding to the presidential vote. I was alluding to state legislatures that are devising districts in such a way not to give the voice to the people but actually to give the voice to congressional officials but I, I want your reaction to this basic notion, which you hear early and often, and that is uh, Congress is piss-poor, uh, below ten percent approval rating…


HEFFNER: But not my guy or gal. Not my congressional official. You’ve been in the field. How much of that sentiment is accurately reflected?

WRIGHT HAWKINGS: About a year ago there was a poll. Um, I’m forgetting right now who conducted it. That where, uh, the percentage of constituents who said, who said that, that, that they pre—prefer their member and their, their member still is good in their eyes dipped below fifty percent for the first time, and I think what that reflects is a frustration with the ability of the system to work that is beginning to supersede…


WRIGHT HAWKINGS: Um, the, the, the goodwill that is, um, that is uh, given to the members and I think part of the reason for that, um, as we were studying, um, these, the system, when I first came on board the Democracy Fund and really beginning to analyze how we were going to take, um, take this, this problem apart and identify the key challenges and then develop a strategy to address them, um, is that, is, is that um, members are less and less, um, engaged one on one with constituents. Um, they have also, there’s, as I mentioned before, there are now four classes of members of Congress who have essentially run against Washington promising to fix it, and that has, there’s an un—unintended consequence there, which is that it further drives down the opinion of the institution by the general, on the part of the general public. So um, all of these, all of these challenges I think are, are areas that in our strategy to help Con—to help increase congressional capacity and engagement and really rebuild some constructive political approaches that we’re trying to address.

BORDEWICH: I would just say one other thing on the structure. There’s, you mentioned an idea which is an assumption, which is that Congress is representative of the demographics of the country in two ways that, so which actually it’s not. So the Senate is not, uh, a representative body, and half, I mean a legislation has to go through the Senate in order to make it, so the Senate was set up to be representing the states, not to be representing the people in those states. Now our idea of what is an appropriate representative body has evolved, but the structure is not representative. So we’re really talking about the House of Representatives. And there we’re talking about uh, the problem which is exacerbated, um, by residential sorting, so birds of a feather flock together.


BORDEWICH: And I talked with a congressman from rural, uh, Missouri recently and he said there is no way you could draw my district, even among the three states that surround me, and make this a Democratic district. There just aren’t any Democrats out here. So we have the residential sorting problem, uh, and we have the winner-take-all problem. So one of the things that, reforms that both Democracy Fund and Madison Initiative are supporting as an experiment, uh, is rank choice voting and multi-member districts. Multi-member districts were allowed up until the 60s, and as an outgrowth of some of the civil rights laws, they were eliminated. But Maine just voted in a referendum this November to allow rank choice voting for all of the state and federal offices in the state. Uh, some other locations like San Francisco and Oakland, where I live, uh, have that for city offices. So I think there are important experiments taking place that would allow more diversity of representation to take place within the existing structures without a Constitutional Convention.

WRIGHT HAWKINGS: And, and counteract, I think some of the, some of the factors that further accelerate the effects of the res—residential sorting that Jean mentioned such as the effect of social media, the effect of um, the growing influence of partisan media elites, um, the, the almost constant focus on who has power rather than on policy making, um, the role of money in feeding all of those, um, and how they all lead to exacerbation of the hyper-partisanship, hyper-partisan environment that we’re operating in.

HEFFNER: So in terms of fueling that beast, you describe here, Betsy, a so-called death spiral…


HEFFNER: That begins with a hyperpartisan environment driven by close competition for majority control…


HEFFNER: And ideologically polarized political parties.


HEFFNER: “An inability to process the public’s demands into satisfactory public policy because of weakened institutional functionality…


HEFFNER: A weakening of internal professional capacity for policymaking, which has left Congress more susceptible to outside interest influence. Divisiveness that leads citizens to disengage from the system, making hyper-partisanship worse…” and then finally, last but not least, the hyper-saturation, you didn’t say hyper but I’ll add it…


HEFFNER: Hyper-saturation of money in the system,


HEFFNER: Which reduces the voices of the elected and citizens alike.


HEFFNER: So I felt like we had to contextualize the outcome of this twenty sixteen election…


BORDEWICH: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: In terms of presidential and house races. Now that we’ve done that, we have the system we have.



HEFFNER: And we are intent on working within it, whether it is infrastructure, which is an agenda of the Trump administration presumably, as he campaigned on it. There are other issues, uh, where there might be some fashioning of coalitions and compromise. But as you see this new Congress taking shape, what, where is the most promise for this consensus-driven approach to counteract this vicious cycle?

WRIGHT HAWKINGS: So I think it starts with rebuilding the capacity of the institution. That means rebuilding the capacity of the members and frankly rebuilding the…


WRIGHT HAWKINGS: Capacity of the staff. Um, the, the close competition and the hyper-partisanship have led members to respond, as I referred to earlier, uh, by running against the institution. What that means is that they essentially have undercut their own ability through um, through over 20 percent, um, budget cuts over the last, over the last uh, five years.


WRIGHT HAWKINGS: Um, and, and there are many fixed costs that a member of Congress has. You still have to pay rent for your district office. You still have to pay for your computers. Um, and so what ends up being sacrificed is staff salaries. Uh, nobody goes to Washington to be wealthy. Um, despite what I know much of the com—common wisdom is. And this, this, the average salary of a staffer who has say, three or four years of experience, enough to know how to, to know how to, how to, to know the district, to know how to legislate, offer an amendment on the floor, to have relationships with colleagues in other offices, to know the constituency well enough to find the experts and help build the coalitions that members need, has been cut in third, in, by a third. And what that means is that a lot of good people, a lot of good staffers can’t afford to stay. Now certainly I understand the concern about people coming and staying for 25 years, but you need some, um, institutional wisdom. And when the average tenure of a staffer is less than two years, less than one term, there’s essentially no institutional memory, no institutional capacity. And so Jean and I, the Hewlett Foundation and Democracy Fund, I think are starting with efforts to rebuild the capacity both in terms of training and just raw knowledge of how to do the job but also helping provide opportunities for just knowing colleagues on the other side of the aisle and learning best practices in a non-partisan environment.

BORDEWICH: Yes. Some, some more specific examples of that, at the member level we both support programs that bring members together across party lines either for policy discussions, for international trips, which I don’t consider junkets because I think it’s one of the most valuable ways that we strengthen the institution is giving them time together, uh, on trips abroad, and um, also at the uh, staff level by doing the same thing, supporting bipartisan associations of chiefs of staff, legislator directors and so forth, they actually don’t know each other. I’ve sat between two members who were chairman and sub-committee chairman at a dinner once and I assumed they knew each other. They both knew me, they did not know each other, and they’d both been in the House for a very long time. So I found that very surprising. There’s a lot to be done in building stronger bipartisan relationships. I don’t think it’s enough. It’s a starting point, but it’s not sufficient. So we’re both looking at other ways of strengthening capacity, and you mentioned some of them. Giving more financial resources. Uh, we don’t want lobbyists to know more than the staff. That’s what happens right now. Another area that we’ve explored is um, building more skills in just how do you negotiate well in the legislative and political context. And we conducted an experiment with this and we found that staff tried to adapt the principles that were taught from business and so forth but they actually don’t quite fit, because it’s a different environment. There’s also oversight, which is a fundamental responsibility of Congress, and has atrophied very much in recent years. And that means making sure that executive branch agencies are spending the money that Congress appropriates, appropriates as, as Congress intended and also that the programs are working. But it’s easier, particularly when the mem—the president is from your own party, to just let that slide, or when you just don’t have the energy to do it, and so we end up with just the highly politicized types of, of hearings. But we think that can change, and uh, there’s a lot of interest and, and we are trying to provide through the grantees that we work with, the organizations we work with, more training in what are the tools of oversight.


BORDEWICH: So these are very technical but institution-building projects that we have underway.

WRIGHT HAWKINGS: And, and I have to say, I have been surprised, um, in the two years since I left the hill and came to Democracy Fund, um, there is a consistent theme from staffers and members alike. Uh, you know, there’s traditionally the sort of typical, well good luck with that,


WRIGHT HAWKINGS: But really, after that, they say thank you. Because they know they need help.


WRIGHT HAWKINGS: You know, they may run against the institution, but they get to Washington and it’s a hard job and it, it, they, they… They, they work seven days a week, they’re away from their family a great deal. Even when they’re back home, they’re, they’re not at home, they’re out meeting with constituents and working hard. And um, they don’t go through all that to not accomplish anything, you know? And yet there are these systemic challenges that have evolved over time as Jean, as Jean mentioned and um, and they know they need help and, and there’s an opportunity there for us.

HEFFNER: Uh, you’ve mentioned a number of facets or areas of potential reconciliation when it comes to language, understanding the language of someone of the opposite party in a way that doesn’t offend you so much that you can’t get to the negotiating table…



HEFFNER: To begin with.


HEFFNER: But a common theme, Betsy, that you, you’re mentioning is running against the institution. I think about often, well why do you run for, for higher office or Congress if you don’t bring to it that workmanlike, um, approach of fixing it, not killing it? Uh, do you think that in this last Congress there was some backlash against Senator Cruz and others who undertook, uh, a, an, an obstruction against this Obama administration that, that backfired?

WRIGHT HAWKINGS: So I, I think there was some, that might not have been visible. I also think that, um, members essentially will do what they’re rewarded for. Congress is a representative body by definition. And members will behave in, in the way for which they’re rewarded, and so until they are rewarded more at the ballot box for cooperation and collaboration than for voting no, um, you know, I think that’s what will happen, so there’s, there’s an element of changing, uh, the system of incentives and rewards, and in some ways almost providing members, you know, cover and positive reinforcement, uh, when they are able to break through. There’s a group of members who have been elected in the last, diff—it’s a group, some, some of whom have each been elected over the last three Congresses who meet for breakfast every week. It’s bipartisan, no staff are allowed. I know who a few of the members are. But I’m not supposed to. And it doesn’t get any press, and the reason it doesn’t get any press is that there are members who are concerned that if…


WRIGHT HAWKINGS: Their constituents or again, going back to social media, um, the partisan media elite, it would, they would become a target for that. And so they do work together on local issues that don’t gain headlines, um, and they are able to move, um, maybe not legislatively but through other means, um, projects that affect their, their constituents’ efforts that, that benefit their constituents in a local way or a regional way, um, that don’t require legislation, but you don’t see them. You know.

BORDEWICH: Yeah. I think that’s very important. Uh, do you want to ask me a question or should I com—comment on that?

HEFFNER: Sure. No, both, but let me just add to this conversation this idea of incentivizing,


HEFFNER: Consensus, cohesion, and so that the, the fat cats…


HEFFNER: When they come through Congress, when they enter a congressional office are not the center of power.


HEFFNER: And how are you and your colleagues driving that point that anyone who walks into a congressional office,


HEFFNER: Ought to have what we define as political capital?

WRIGHT HAWKINGS: Right. Well having worked for four members of Congress, two in the Senate and two in the House, and I’ve worked in the district, so I’ve been a district director, I think that the, the view from the state part of the office is a lot different than the view in Washington. And if, I have to say the offices, every office I’ve worked in, the most important person to ever walk in the door was a constituent. And also, mem—every member I worked for had office hours in the district so you didn’t have to come to Washington to see him. You could see him often more easily in the district. I think members crave contact with their constituents for the most part. Of course not everybody’s the same, but, and they um, I mean that was one reason a member I worked for, we had eight district offices in the Senate so that there would be representation in every part of the state. So I think that it’s true that uh, lobbyists and people who give a lot of money also have access. Often lobbyists have frankly knowledge and expertise that may be missing on the staff, as we talked about. And uh, they’re used for that reason. Uh, I do think though this leads to a conversation about what’s happened to provide pressures on members that are more intense than in the past, from the nationalization of money in politics, the nationalization of the news media, the loss of state-based coverage of your members in district…


WRIGHT HAWKINGS: … and um, the nationalization of party messages. So, and the coherence of the party, so the parties have gotten very ideologically coherent within themselves, they have these messages that everybody’s supposed to adhere to. It might not fit your district very well. And you’re sort of torn sometimes and uh, between that and what the leadership wants you to either vote or talk about. Uh, at the same, so that this loss of the connection at the district level I think is very serious, and it’s been exacerbated by all these elements. I think that it’s a, if I think of Congress as a crucible, you know, big metal cauldron that’s got a lot of, sitting on a lot of heat on the bottom but it’s also got a, a lot of heat on the inside as the stew is, is simmering and bubbling, it’s got to be strong enough to contain and withstand all those forces, um, and produce something hopefully we’ll all want to eat. But I think the pressures from the outside of the institution have intensified greatly in the last twenty years and have made it harder for members to fall back on the local model that was so successful for a long time for many of them, and can work in a, in a cross-partisan way and still does, but then they get caught up in this nationalization of media message and money.

HEFFNER: Well, I will share with you a, a really impressive case study, which was two neighboring constituencies in New York. Representative Tonko and Representative Gibson…


BORDEWICH: Mm. Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: And I was honored to moderate a discussion at Skidmore College…


WRIGHT HAWKINGS: I was gonna say, Saratoga, yeah.

HEFFNER: Saratoga.

WRIGHT HAWKINGS: That’s my, that’s my home district.


HEFFNER: I think relying on or having, having a shoulder, um, of your neighboring congressional friend in this case trumped commitments to third parties, be they lobbyists or partisan organizations, and that was a really inspiring message that they sent to the students at Skidmore.

WRIGHT HAWKINGS: But, and I think though it’s very, it’s a very important illustration of the fact that, you know, there’s a, there’s a lot going on with a member of Congress and, and the, the national media, which now completely dominates the messages ’cause you don’t get, you don’t have local media much anymore and when you have it, they’re, they don’t have enough staff to cover their congressional delegation, um, puts out this message about all the conflict on the most ideologically divisive issues. There’s a whole range of things that first of all pass every year, because you work on it, but more importantly as you just pointed out, regional issues unite across party lines. I mean we’re all trying to clean up the Hudson River, for example, from Paul Tonko all the way down to Chris Gibson and, and further south in, in the Hudson Valley. That’s gonna unite you. Um, you have other issues that you might share statewide or regionwide like we had adjacent districts in two different states. We could have both been talking about land preservation for example…

BORDEWICH: Or the regional airport, or, yeah.

WRIGHT HAWKINGS: Or clean water or the regional airport. And…

BORDEWICH: Watershed. Yeah. Long Island Sound watershed, all these things. [LAUGHS] And that’s going on all the time with members. I had one member from a deep south state, um, he’s white and he was telling me that um, he had a very close relationship with one of the African-American, uh, representatives from their, from the area and, and he said we work together constantly on state issues but um, we don’t make it very public, like you were saying earlier, that we are so close because the African-American is worried about getting primaried and I’m worried about getting primaried if it’s known that, because our national profile is super-liberal versus super-conservative. On those high-profile, highly divisive issues. So there’s a lot more going on, but unfortunately, um, those highly divisive issues and those pressures, those national—nat—nationalized pressures I think have uh, really weakened the institution.

WRIGHT HAWKINGS: The most important thing is to engage in the process.


WRIGHT HAWKINGS: Okay. Um, you can’t change a system that you’re not part of, and that you’re not engaging with, um, and you can’t change an institution unless you’re petitioning it and bringing your concerns. And I think um, you know, I actually was uh, speaking to a group just yesterday and um, this is a group where they have members advo—it’s a group of advocacy organizations and some are very concerned about juvenile diabetes. Others are concerned about muscular dystrophy. Others are concerned about um, about orphan diseases, heart disease, cancer, and so on. Each has a different ask of Congress with regard to funding, with regard to policy. I said what if the first thing you said, when you, each one of you, when you walked in to see your member of Congress was the most important thing is that you fix this place, because I said you’re not going to get that increased funding for heart disease research if the, if the institution is not capable of legislating? And so that’s the place to start. Um, there’s one, uh, effort that we’ve gotten uh, that, that we’re supporting at Democracy Fund, through Democracy Fund Voice, our c 4, um, which is a joint committee to provide a forum where members can take their reform ideas, um, and, and, and air them and then work together to try to build coalitions, um, to advocate some reforms that will help the institution to work better. Um, so that’s one idea and, but I do think the most important thing is this is a representative body, and people who want to see change need to roll up their sleeves and get involved and ask for it, because members will respond.

HEFFNER: Betsy, Jean, thank you so much for joining me today.

BORDEWICH: Thank you, Alexander.

WRIGHT HAWKINGS: Thank you, this is great.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over fifteen hundred other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.