ST. BONAVENTURE, NY – While Congress struggles over a wide range of public policy issues, two former congressmen visited campus to share their legislative experiences and their thoughts on the growing partisan divide.
Republican Steven Kuykendall and Democrat Charles Melancon spent Monday and Tuesday at the university, representing the Congress to Campus program of the United States Association of Former Members of Congress. They spoke in classrooms and appeared in two public forums.
During Monday’s forum in the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts – “What Explains the Discord in Washington and What Can Be Done to Restore Bipartisan Cooperation?” – Melancon dated the partisan divide back to Newt Gingrich’s becoming Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1995.
Melancon, who represented Louisiana’s 3rd Congressional District in the House of Representatives between 2005 and 2011, told the audience that Gingrich “ordered” Republican members of the House to visit their families on weekends instead of moving them to Washington, D.C.
“That was the way the minority would become the majority and could hold it,” Melancon said, adding those weekend trips prevented members of Congress from building relationships across political lines.
And Kuykendall pointed to another reason for the divide: Those who voted Congressional representatives into office.
“Congress is very responsive and reflective to who puts them in office,” said Kuykendall, who represented California’s 36th Congressional District in the House between 1999 and 2001.
“The body has become harder right and harder left due to the constituencies that put them in office.”
During his time in the House, Kuykendall served on the following committees: Armed Services, Science, and Transportation and Infrastructure. He noted that the partisan divide was not always present during his time in Congress.
“You made a deal,” Kuykendall recalled. “You figured out what you were going to do for the country, what you needed to get done. It might not be a perfect solution, but it’s moving you in a direction that’s making it work.”
Kuykendall said such consensus is missing from the current political landscape.
“They have no incentive to do anything other than be absolute because they’re sent there under those terms,” said Kuykendall, who had been a member of the Tuesday Morning group of moderate Republicans in Congress. “They are going to be challenged by somebody who is more absolute than they are. That degree of purity shouldn’t count anymore, but it does.”
Both congressmen said the threat of Republicans using the “nuclear option” to appoint a Supreme Court justice would only make the divide wider. The nuclear option would be a change in Senate rules allowing for a simple-majority approval for President Donald Trump’s nominee Neil M. Gorsuch.
Melancon, who had been a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a caucus of conservative Democrats, said he has witnessed struggles between members of the same political parties.
“The moderates in the congress disappeared,” Melancon said. “We were 55 members when I got there. Six years later after that election was over there was enough to count on two hands.”
When it comes to closing the partisan divide, both congressmen suggested part of the solution come from outside of Congress.
“Hold your elected officials accountable. The voter has to stand up to the legislator they sent to Congress,” said Melancon, who served on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, and the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment.
The topic for the former Congressmen's Tuesday lunchtime forum in the University Club was “How Should States and Communities Respond to Cutbacks in Federal Environmental Protection?”