A Republican and Democrat walk into a town hall. Can they help fix Congress?

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WASHINGTON – During a particularly acrimonious week in Congress marked by name-calling, threats and shouting matches, two House members – Republican Dusty Johnson of South Dakota and Democrat Dean Phillips of Minnesota – sat together in the Capitol Rotunda pitching a one-of-a-kind experiment in civility and bipartisanship.

Johnson later this month plans to visit Phillips’ suburban Minneapolis district, where they’ll spend time together, tour the headquarters of Cargill foods and attend the Minnesota State Fair to take in butter-carving competitions and pie-eating contests.

They'll also do something unheard of: jointly take part in a carefully structured town hall where a small but politically diverse group of Phillips' constituents will share opinions on hot-button topics as both lawmakers listen and talk.

“Congress is a raucous outfit, and frankly, there are times where we don't do a very good job of modeling good behavior for the rest of the country,” Johnson told USA TODAY as Phillips looked on.

The visit is part of an under-the-radar push among some in Congress to transform – or at least improve – an institution mired in dysfunction and distrust.

Lawmakers, including top leaders, routinely lob insults at each other. Metal detectors have been in place outside the House floor since January after Democrats expressed concerns about some of their Republican colleagues. The re-imposition of mask requirements in light of rising COVID cases – and the threat of arrests for lawmakers who don't wear one on the floor – has led to arguments between members and protests by far-right conservatives.

The squabbles over everything from mask-wearing to the cause of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection have grown so heated that it's inspired a group of lawmakers with opposing views to seek something akin to political mediation. By working with organizations aimed at lowering the temperature in Washington – including one a marriage counselor helped start – Phillips and Johnson hope to show civility and compromise still work in Washington.

The town hall later this month is a prototype organizers hope they can replicate elsewhere to demonstrate Congress can remain a place for ideas rather than insults. Plans are already in the works for Phillips to visit Johnson’s district in the fall and include a similar town hall.

“I believe representation begins with listening; we're going to listen to people. We need more spaces and places for people to share perspective,” Phillips chimed in. “And if we all did the same thing. The country is going to be in a better place.”

A ‘common ground conversation’

Braver Angels, a non-profit group promoting political civility formed after the 2016 elections that amplified the nation’s partisan divisions, is moderating the intimate town hall, which it’s dubbing a “common ground conversation.”

It has other strategies in the works too: get-to-know-you workshops that bring Republican and Democratic staffers together, and "one-on-ones" in which a lawmaker from one party meets with one from the other over coffee or dinner or on Zoom primarily to socialize while they’re on Capitol Hill.

Bill Doherty, a Minnesota family therapist and marriage counselor who co-founded the organization and will be moderating the Aug. 26 discussion, said the conversation will involve nearly a dozen constituents ranging from very liberal to very conservative. It’s less about changing minds on policy, he said, and more about encouraging dialogue by emphasizing the values people share even if they disagree politically.

“What’s happened in this country is we believe that because we differ on policies like the size and role of the federal government, we think we differ on fundamental aspirations, values and goals,” he said.

If this pilot is successful, the organization wants to hold similar conversations in other districts. Doherty said the format calls for only the local member of Congress to participate but a visiting member could take part.

While Braver Angels is assisting with the constituent conversation, Johnson's visit to Minnesota is being organized by a different group trying to build congressional civility: the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Trump supporters, at left, demonstrating the election results are confronted by counterprotesters at the State Capitol in Lansing, Mich., on Nov. 7, 2020.
Trump supporters, at left, demonstrating the election results are confronted by counterprotesters at the State Capitol in Lansing, Mich., on Nov. 7, 2020.

The center pairs lawmakers of different parties together under its American Congressional Exchange program. Started in 2018, the center already has arranged 25 visits where members often tour local attractions or businesses and meet with civic leaders, said Jonathan Perman, co-director of the exchange program.

“We're in divided government and culture right now. And the truth is that members of Congress, really don't have many opportunities to build relationships and get to know one another,” Perman said. “Since relationships are pretty much foundational for not just politics but for anything, we wanted to create a programming idea that offered the opportunity for members of Congress to spend time together, learn about one another's districts and from that experience, hopefully come away with a constructive relationship.”

Trading insults at the top

Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the chamber's top Republican, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, “a moron.” A few days later, McCarthy joked it "will be hard not to hit" Pelosi with the speaker's gavel if Republicans win control of the chamber in next year’s mid-term elections.

While far-right and far-left members with a large social media presence get much of the blame for the polarizing nature of politics, analysts say it starts at the top.

“When party leaders believe an issue has electoral implications, especially for which party controls the majority, it is going to be very challenging to change the us-versus-them-win-or-lose culture,” Kris Miler, an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland said during a recent congressional hearing examining civility on Capitol Hill.

Phillips said Congress is set up so that only partisan folks make it to the top and the leaders on both sides don’t do much to encourage or facilitate get-togethers between Republicans and Democrats.

“This is not an institution designed, at least at this point in its history, to get people together. In fact, leadership tends to preserve power by keeping people separate,” he said. “You can't work with people you don't trust, and you can't trust people you don't know.”

In trying to improve the culture of Congress, Rep. Derek Kilmer has sought advice from psychologists, trauma therapists, marriage counselors and sports coaches tasked with turning around losing teams.

The Washington State Democrat who chairs the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress lamented during a recent hearing how unsatisfying the job of being a lawmaker is lately.

“Today a lot of what happens in Congress doesn’t feel very constructive. It feels frustrating at best and maddening at worst. That feeling, by the way, is bipartisan,” he said. “I haven’t met anyone who actually enjoys working in a dysfunctional environment.”

‘Unlikely friendships’

Johnson, a conservative policy wonk from rural South Dakota, and Phillips, a pro-business progressive from the Minneapolis suburbs, don’t seem like natural allies.

The wiry Johnson, whose boyish face belies his 44 years of age, is chatty, high-energy and gregarious. A telecommunications expert who attended the university of South Dakota, he has a keen interest in expanding high-speed internet in his home state. He has spent much of his life in the public eye including a stint as chief of staff to then-Gov. Dennis Daugaard.

The Ivy League-educated Phillips, 52, a small business owner and philanthropist, strikes a more measured tone. Those who first meet the low-key congressman are drawn more to Henry, the Norwich Terrier who accompanies him almost everywhere on Capitol Hill – even to cast votes (Henry has to stay outside the chamber) and, yes, to the Rotunda for the USA TODAY interview with Johnson.

Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., speaks during a news conference with the Problem Solvers Caucus about the expected passage of the emergency COVID-19 relief bill, Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Congressional leaders have hashed out a massive, year-end catchall bill that combines $900 billion in COVID-19 aid with a $1.4 trillion spending bill and reams of other unfinished legislation on taxes, energy, education and health care.

They're on opposite sides of the political spectrum as well. Johnson gets a 96 (out of 100) rating by Heritage Action of America, a conservative think tank, while Phillips gets a zero.

But they're both committed optimists (they each describe themselves as such in the first sentences of their congressional biographies). And they're members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of 58 House lawmakers – 29 Democrats and 29 Republicans – who regularly meet to tackle issues of mutual interest such as a recent infrastructure deal they helped broker.

As members of that caucus, Johnson and Phillips were key players in the development and passage of a roughly $900 billion bipartisan COVID relief package in December that included another round of direct payments to millions of Americans and added billions to the Paycheck Protection Program to help small businesses nationwide struggling in the face of the pandemic's suffocating grip.

“At the end of the day, what our country needs more than anything else is more unlikely friendships," Phillips said. "And they happen here every day in the strangest moments between the most unlikely people.”

Reimagining the town hall

The common ground conversation Johnson and Phillips will take part on Aug. 26 will start with a meal and end with a group photo. In between, participants will be asked to share what they like about their community and what their chief concerns are.

There will be “fishbowl” exercises where half the group is in the middle discussing an issue of mutual concern (think immigration or gun rights) while the rest sit around them listening. Then they switch seats so everyone gets to weigh in. Phillips and Johnson will be taking part in both groups.

Demonstrators confront one another after one group put out a fire during a night of protest on July 31, 2020 in Portland, Oregon.
Demonstrators confront one another after one group put out a fire during a night of protest on July 31, 2020 in Portland, Oregon.

To find the right mix of constituents, Phillips' office will reach out to the roughly 40,000 residents on his mailing list, Doherty said. They’ll be invited to apply to be part of the conversation.

The group of constituents will be randomly chosen by Phillips' office, with key stipulations: the participants must represent a wide spectrum of political leanings; they must be “ordinary citizens” rather than individuals who represent organizations; and they cannot be known enthusiasts or critics of the lawmaker.

Doherty said lawmakers could benefit from holding similar conversations several times a year to expand the pool of constituents participating. And, ideally, it would eventually replace the traditional town hall where large assemblies can stir up emotions but rarely lead to meaningful solutions, he said.

“You just never give an open mic to a solitary individual,” he said of the current town hall format. “That’s a terrible design.”

Divisions that pre-date Trump

California Democratic Rep. Katie Porter witnessed the rancor first-hand last month when an outdoor town hall she hosted in Irvine devolved into a minor brawl after a small group of opponents led by one of her congressional rivals in next year’s election began heckling her.

Punches were thrown. People were hurt. Police were called in.

Porter told MSNBC how her office’s efforts to space out the crowd, give constituents an equal chance to ask a question and emphasize the need for a civil exchange ended up not being enough to prevent violence.

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“It was incredibly heartbreaking when that happened,” she said in the interview. “After Jan. 6, it's hard to feel safe in Washington right now, and now it's hard to feel safe in Irvine.”

The Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol by a group of Donald Trump’s supporters has added to the blame from the former president’s opponents that he is largely responsible for fanning the flames of division now crackling over the election outcome, mask-wearing and other issues roiling the public and Congress.

While Braver Angels and the Bipartisan Congressional Exchange were created after Trump's election, Doherty said that chasm existed and has been widening well before he arrived.

“This is systemic. This has been going on for some time,” he said. “Trump brought it to a boil. But I always believe that if Trump vanished from the face of the Earth, we would still have most of this polarization.”

Trump supporters feel shunned as well.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the freshman Georgia Republican who was stripped of her committee assignments in February for incendiary, conspiratorial and menacing social media posts before she was elected, said she can’t work with Democrats because of their policies which she says border on “communism.”

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021.

“As far as civility I haven't really experienced it very much here,” she told USA TODAY. “For me it has definitely been an unwelcome place and I've never, like I said, never done anything wrong."

Johnson said it's a shame that most of the attention follows members who are outlandish or uncompromising while those who quietly work to reach common ground are often overlooked.

“All of the incentives in the system reward bad behavior, right?" he said. "You can raise a lot more money if you sound like a crazy person. You get a lot more Twitter followers if you sound like a crazy person. And you can get a lot more people at your rallies – and a lot more cable news hits – if you say things that are over the top.”

‘You just don’t know their names’

The COVID relief bill that passed in December shows there are successes.

The same week that House members were seen shouting at each other over mask-wearing, a bipartisan group of senators forged a $1 trillion infrastructure compromise that – if passed – would represent the largest transportation funding bill in U.S. history.

Perman said the exchange program he helps run has not only brought lawmakers of different stripes together but also led to legislation. In 2018, Florida Democrat Stephanie Murphy co-sponsored a bill with Michigan Republican Jack Bergman to help veterans transition to the workforce.

“Congress is more bipartisan than people recognize,” he said. Infrastructure is an example “but there's also other bills that just don't get attention, that members work on together. They’re not the ones that you see in the headlines, but they are important to members districts and to the kind of initiatives they find compatibility on.”

Phillips said discord is natural in a body that represents every corner of the United States.

“This is a big family, which means a lot of different perspectives in this building," he said. "And that is a good metaphor for the United States of America. And there are a lot of people who are doing it right, You just don't know their names yet.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Republican Johnson, Democrat Phillips using experiment to fix Congress