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A Capitol Hill friendship that mattered

A friend died last week. We served together in Congress; and although he wasn’t exactly a household name, he was an unheralded hero to anyone who believes that Republicans and Democrats should attempt compromise when possible. 

Describing him requires a story. 

If you want to understand the breakdown in civility between members of Congress, stand in the parking area of the Capitol after the House casts the last vote of the week — usually a Thursday or Friday morning. It’s called “getaway day.” You ‘ll observe members stampeding through the exits, down the marble steps, and swarming vehicles for a race to airports. 

On one particular getaway day, I had to make a 4 p.m. flight to New York for a speech that evening, and the last vote was just after 3. Strategically, I stationed myself at the voting machine closest to the exit. In went my voting card; out I raced. 

Unfortunately, there was someone in front of me. Plodding. As if he had all the time in the world. So, I reached around him to open the doors. They’re heavy, built to withstand a bomb, if not a New York congressman in a rush. When I pushed, a sharp lower corner managed to snag the shoe of representative slow-poke. He fell to one knee with a shriek. 

What did I do? What any good New Yorker would do. I kept going; never looked back. 

Fast forward a few weeks. I was in the Members Gym, huffing away on a bicycle. The guy next to me was jogging on a treadmill. “You don’t remember me, do you?” he asked. 

“Sorry, I don’t.”

“I’m the guy you tried to take out when we left votes. You actually tore my shoe!”

“You buy cheap shoes,” I joked. 

He introduced himself as Congressman Tim Johnson, Republican from Springfield, Illinois, the district once represented by Abraham Lincoln. 

I was hooked. 

Tim Johnson and I noticed something about the Members Gym. There, Republicans and Democrats competed in healthy, spirited, respectful competition, like handball and basketball, without name-calling, without questioning each other’s patriotism, without vituperation. But as soon as we took the elevator from the floor of the gym to the floor of the House, we erupted in partisan warfare. 

So, Johnson and I tried an experiment. 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. 

One day, Tim Johnson sat next to me on the floor and confided that he was about to announce he wasn’t running for reelection, despite having received his party’s nomination a week earlier. In fact, he’d decided to resign. 

I asked why. 

“I just can’t stand the vilification,” he said. “Being treated like a traitor because I believe in compromise.”

Maybe there were other reasons, I don’t know. But I can tell you that Congressman Tim Johnson was a proud conservative whose heresy was believing that he could fight for his values while respecting mine. 

I’m sorry about that shoe, Tim. But it ended up being an important first step to a friendship that mattered on Capitol Hill.  

A step I’ll never forget. 

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now director of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy Institute of Politics and Global Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael. 

Tags Congress Partisanship Tim Johnson Tim Johnson

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