Everyone is looking for solutions to the gridlock that grips Washington. Most suggestions are complicated. But there’s a simple step that could move our Congress in the right direction. We could stop seating the parties on opposite sides of the aisle.
The effects of the current seating arrangements are dramatically on display at every State of the Union address. One side rises in roaring applause for a point they agree with, as the other side sits in stony silence.
But what if talking with a legislator of a different party did not require “crossing the aisle?”
Helping legislators know their opponents as people rather than as positions could begin to build bridges across party lines.
It used to be that the folks we sent to represent us in Washington got to know each other across party lines. They went to the same social events, mixed at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, and played golf together.
No more. Not only has the political gap widened, the personal gap has as well, and with it any semblance of trust. Members on opposite sides of the aisle hardly know each others’ names, much less the names of their opponents’ spouses or children.
Many factors contribute to the estrangement. With the onslaught of big money in politics, our legislators are occupied with fundraising from the moment they win their most recent election. They now regularly fly home on weekends. As E. Clay Shaw, a 26-year former Republican congressman from Florida, told the Sun Sentinel, “The Democrats and the Republicans don't really know each other. They get to town on a Tuesday morning, vote, and leave on a Thursday. They don't socialize. They never see each other."
Given the reduced opportunities for socializing in off-hours, perhaps it’s time to encourage cross-party conversations during work hours. How? Simply rearrange the seating in Congress.
Imagine our legislators seated in alphabetical order.
In the House, Mitt Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan would sit next to Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan. Progressive Pennsylvania Democrat Chaka Fattah would converse with Tea Party leader Stephen Fincher of Tennessee.
In the Senate, Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would be sandwiched between progressive Democrats Claire McCaskill from Missouri and Robert Menendez from New Jersey. Firebrand Florida Republican Marco Rubio would get to know Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders.
Can a different seating arrangement make any difference?
Jim Kastama, a Democrat who served 16 years in the Washington state senate, says it can. In an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor, Kastama recounts that when he joined the senate, there wasn’t enough room on the Democrats’ side of the chamber, so he had to sit with the Republicans. Later on, still a Democrat, he stayed on the Republican side by choice. Some accused him of being a Republican at heart and a sell-out. He claims his choice “… allowed me to build relationships with these lawmakers and their families, discover areas where we agree, and build trust. We still had sharp differences, but I found a willingness to work problems out, rather than fight.”
The polarization we see today in our Congress has many sources. Gerrymandered districts create safe seats that enable extreme positions. The flood of money in politics funds politicians beholden to fixed positions. Our 24/7 media barrage thrives on demonization and polarizes us all.
Abolishing the aisle will not solve those problems. But helping legislators know their opponents as people rather than as positions could begin to build bridges across party lines. It doesn’t cost money—and just might avoid the worst of the gridlock.