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From left, Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) await President Obama's State of the Union address in January 2011, when a bipartisan seating arrangement symbolically suggested a more cooperative spirit among lawmakers. (Getty Images)

Making A Case For Closer Contact In Congress

Nov 10, 2012 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Gridlock is the term many use to describe what happens when legislation gets stalled in the U.S. Congress.

But gridlock suggests that people in Congress at least run into each other. I've had enough casual, personal conversations with representatives in both parties in recent years to begin to think a more critical problem might be that politicians of opposing parties are almost strangers to each other.

Evan Bayh — who left the Senate last year after two terms — is the son of former Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh. He's told interviewers that he can remember parties and dinners during his boyhood in Washington, D.C., to which his father, who was a Democrat, would invite Republicans, whom he considered friends and colleagues.

"I haven't been to a dinner in 12 years where there were any Republicans," he told Charles Gibson of ABC. I've heard Republican legislators say the same about Democrats.

A number of congressional representatives turn the Capitol office they worked so hard to win into a kind of post-collegiate crash-pad, sleeping on a sofa bed, and lining up to shower in the House gym.

Many nights, they might sit on their office sofa and watch Fox News or MSNBC, according to their affiliation, and wonder why some representative from Idaho or Oregon is on and they're not.

In fact, it's notable today that Evan Bayh owns up to growing up in Washington, D.C., where the Bayh family was together. Many representatives these days don't bring their families with them to Washington. They emphasize how little time they spend in the capital. A representative might seem to find it easier to explain why he went to North Korea than linger in Washington, D.C.

Many representatives and senators will leave Washington on Friday, in time to appear at a fish fry, church supper or community meeting in their district that night. There is usually a welter of other events through the weekend because a politician can't go to the Parkside Citizens Forum on Saturday and miss the Lakeside Neighbors Assembly on Sunday.

They work long hours — seven days a week — and get a zillion frequent flyer miles, which, representatives have told me, they dare not use to upgrade, lest a constituent see them sipping a free drink in first class — a first sign of "going Washington."

At the end of a week — week after grinding week — they will hear what many people in their district think about urgent issues. But I wonder how much opportunity they have — or make — to hear other ideas from other districts or get to know and work across a table with other representatives in what's called, after all, a "representative democracy."

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