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Former Congressmen come to CIRP's Policy forum to talk bipartisanship in the modern era

This past week, former Congressmen Rep. David Skaggs (D-CO) and Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-IL) visited Carnegie Mellon as part of the “Congress to Campus” program to promote bipartisanship and to get young people interested in public service.

The former congressmen gave a lecture titled “Closing our Political Divide: A Bipartisan Approach to Legislation” on Sept. 27 and sat down for an interview with The Tartan. In the interview, they discussed the value of bipartisanship in politics, the importance of public service and voting, their opinions on the president’s conduct, and their take on the single headline that has dominated political news for days — the hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

Skaggs’ work promoting bipartisanship goes back two decades, around the time when he says modern hyper-partisanship started influencing national politics. He created the House Bipartisanship Retreats, which went on for eight years, in order to give Republican and Democratic representatives the chance to know each other as human beings and as more than just political adversaries. He and Manzullo, through the “Congress to Campus” program, want to demonstrate that despite the partisan politics that dominate the evening news, people of both parties can — and do — work together, even in today’s Congress.

Both Skaggs and Manzullo emphasized that they also wanted to get young people interested in public service. “Our big concern is that a lot of people are not becoming involved in public service because they don’t think it’s worth it,” said Manzullo. Part of their goal is to impress upon students that public service is a worthwhile alternative to all the competing opportunities out there.

They expressed concern about polls repeatedly showing extremely low levels of public faith in Congress. Manzullo cited a study that showed Brussels sprouts and proctologists seemed to be more popular than Congress, and said that there was “something going wrong in America” if the House of Representatives — which he pointed out was also known as the “People’s House” — was held in such low regard. Skaggs added that although it is easy to blame the politicians for Washington dysfunction, “the politics of the country reflect the people of the country.”

“[Politics is] not a spectator sport,” Skaggs asserted. If people are dissatisfied with current politics, Skaggs says “the answer isn’t just to dump on politicians, it’s to get involved [as citizens].”

It is well known that voter turnout is generally low, especially among young people. The former Congressmen noted that this was a contrast to their college years during the Vietnam era and the Civil Rights Movement, both of which spawned waves of student activism. In response to the problem of low voter turnout, Manzullo emphasizes the fact that there are close races in every election cycle, and that one cannot know which race will be decided by a few votes. He gave examples of past elections where the winner was decided by a dozen votes or less.

Skaggs added that other contributors to this problem were the educational system and the politicians themselves. He believes that there should be more civics classes that teach young people how the government works so that young people are able to make an informed decision when voting. He also lays some of the blame at the feet of politicians who tend to engage only older voters who are more reliable on election day. According to survey research, “if young people are...engaged with [and taken seriously] by politicians, [who then] ask them for their vote, they’ll respond to that,” Skaggs stated. In his view, since young people often feel ignored by candidates, it is no surprise that they tend not to vote
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Manzullo and Skaggs weighed in on more specific issues within the current administration—specifically, the president’s general conduct in office and on Twitter. Manzullo came out unequivocally against President Trump’s off-the-cuff style online, which contrasts with the silence of current congressional Republicans. “I don’t think presidents should tweet! I’m serious! I think it’s a very cheap form of communication...a lot of people don’t think [before they tweet] and if you’re the president of the United States, you have to think very seriously about what you’re going to say,” he maintains. He calls it beneath the dignity of the presidency when Trump insults and attacks people on Twitter.

Skaggs agrees, saying that Trump has made a mockery of the office and that the president should not be a molester of women. They also agree that congressional Republicans need to speak up more forcefully against the president, because politicians have an obligation to challenge anything they don’t believe is right, including members of one’s own party. Both Skaggs and Manzullo did just that in office: Manzullo criticized President Bush heavily over tariff policies, while Skaggs filed a lawsuit against President Clinton over the line-item veto, which Skaggs believed was a constitutional violation.

The Kavanaugh hearings, which have gripped and divided the nation and forced Republicans to call for an FBI investigation into Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations of sexual assault against the Supreme Court nominee is where the two diverge. Skaggs emphasized the “appalling fashion” that Senate Republicans handled the allegations, called them hypocrites because of how they held up Merrick Garland’s nomination for political reasons, and called on Kavanaugh to apologize rather than relying on what Skaggs termed “convenient memory” or committing perjury.

In contrast, Manzullo believed that Senator Dianne Feinstein should have handled the case better and referred the allegations to the FBI earlier. Rather than making it a public circus, he said that Feinstein should have confronted Kavanaugh privately and given him a chance to resolve it without dragging all of it into the limelight. He called it “unfortunate” for both Ford and Kavanaugh that the way it was handled caused it to become the political drama it is now. Both Skaggs and Manzullo, however, agreed that there needed to be an FBI investigation, which was ordered by the White House on Sept. 28.

The two former representatives also made some political predictions of their own for the upcoming midterm elections and beyond. Skaggs believed that Nancy Pelosi will likely hang onto her leadership position and become Speaker of the House again and that Democrats may pick up 230 seats in the House. He also believes that Trump will not likely finish his term, describing the president’s ego as having “no bounds.” Manzullo isn’t sure if Democrats will win the majority but thought that if they do win, it would either be a landslide or a very close margin.

Although hyper-partisanship seems to be the rage these days, Manzullo and Skaggs are trying to show us a side of politics that isn’t just about ramming nominees and legislation through at all costs but instead about finding common ground and working together to get things done.