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Lee Rasch: Common ground is higher ground

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In the late 1990s, while visiting the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., I had the opportunity to observe a news conference on the Capitol steps.

Dick Gebhardt, then Democratic Minority Leader of the House, was announcing a policy statement. He was facing a dozen media reps who began firing questions about the implications of the policy. They were persistent in asking questions, rephrasing questions, repeating questions to catch Rep. Gebhardt off guard pushing him to reveal more details. Time and time again he would rephrase their questions and respond by bringing it back to his key points.

I recall leaving that experience amazed by his unflappable ability to stick to his message. Later, in watching the news, I heard other House members respond to the news conference … and essentially repeat the same message. It was then clear that the entire media event had been planned, scripted and coordinated. There is nothing wrong with sticking to one’s message; it can help in clarifying complex issues. The question is whether the message is designed for partisan purposes or for good public policy.

In our politically divided time, delivering a focused policy message is difficult. There is considerable pressure to follow the partisan script. Unfortunately, this means dismissing or disregarding the positions of the other political party … promising great results by following a playbook with half the pages missing.

Many elected officials display a minimal effort, if any, in finding common ground positions. Their message is directed solely toward their political party base, not their entire constituency. They are determined not to carry out the will of the people, but rather the will of the party.

Fortunately, this is not the case for all elected leaders. A number have developed a solid record in seeking common ground policy positions. The Common Ground Committee, a nonpartisan, citizen-led organization, tracks the performance of all federal elected officials. They have developed a scorecard that rates the performance of elected leaders in promoting common ground solutions. Their goal is to educate voters on the comparative performance of elected officials.

Among Wisconsin officials, Congressmen Mike Gallagher and Ron Kind rate the highest. Congressmen Tom Tiffany and Glenn Grothman score the lowest. The complete scorecard is available at commongroundcommittee.org.

In late August, the five Republican Members of Congress visited Fort McCoy. In early September, two Democratic Members of Congress also visited Fort McCoy. The purpose of the two visits was laudable … to see and hear first hand the process, procedures and conditions for the refugees from Afghanistan. Both visits were followed by an onsite news conference.

The messages primarily emphasized their partisan views. In healthier times, a cohesive delegation would attend functions as one body, as representatives of the state of Wisconsin. Think about how much more powerful this could have been if Congressional members could work together on behalf of the people of Wisconsin and the country in doing what they were elected to do.

Lee Rasch is executive director of LeaderEthics-Wisconsin.

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