The High Road

Posted Sept. 07, 2010, at 7:39 p.m.

Helen Thomas, the irascible and now retired correspondent who covered the White House since John Kennedy lived there, has said the current climate in Washington is as divided as she’s ever seen. Olympia Snowe, who has served in Congress for 32 years, has said the same. Shaking one’s head and muttering “shame, shame” is one response. But there are some bright spots worth noting.

Sen. Snowe, a Republican, and Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat, shared a flight back to Maine recently, and both lamented the partisan take-no-prisoners atmosphere that now rules. Meeting with the Bangor Daily News editorial board recently, Rep. Michaud readily admitted that the combative and dismissive approach Republican leaders took when the GOP controlled Congress has been replicated by Democrats.

Though this partisan standoff is very real and has serious consequences, cable TV and talk radio pundits tend to distort its pervasiveness. Rep. Michaud said both Sens. Snowe and Susan Collins, along with Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree, work together as a delegation more often than not. When Rep. Michaud’s staff is unable to attend an important meeting in Maine, or help solve a constituent problem, the senators’ staff will pitch in. Rep. Michaud’s office returns the favor.

As chairman of the Health Care Subcommittee of the Veterans Affairs Committee, Rep. Michaud began scheduling Republican bills for hearings. Such cooperation with the “other side” prompted a question from a Democratic representative from California. “What are you doing?” he asked. Rep. Michaud’s answer was that Republicans sometimes have good ideas, too.

It is important to note that Rep. Michaud was not tooting his own horn about his bipartisan bona fides, but rather the observation was an aside in a conversation that covered many topics.

He did recall his time as president of the Maine Senate, when that body was split between 17 Democrats, 17 Republicans and one independent. Under a painstakingly crafted deal, a Democrat — Mr. Michaud — would serve as president for one year, and a Republican for the next year of the two-year session. When a Republican senator died in office tipping the votes to the Democrats, the party urged Mr. Michaud to stay on as president, but he insisted the deal remain in place.

Rep. Michaud also recalled how productive it was to gather the chairmen and chairwomen of the committees — from both parties — to work out schedules. Such an approach held the pack mentality of partisan loyalty at bay.

Bipartisanship for its own sake is a waste of time. There are fundamental differences in the philosophies of the two parties. But those clashes that are legitimately philosophical are less frequent than some would have us believe. Practical trust-building steps between the parties can be taken; all it takes is leadership. For their part, voters should notice when, for example, the Maine delegation works together effectively. Pats on the back may encourage more such behavior.

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