Q&A: Congressmen From Each Side of the Aisle Discuss President's Role in Partisanship

The Duke Chronicle

Two congressmen from opposing parties, Dan Lipinski (D-IL) and Tom Reed (R-NY), spoke Monday at a POLIS Event entitled "Bipartisan Collaboration in the U.S. Congress: Yes, It Really Happens." Reed is the co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, which is dedicated to building bipartisan support on a number of key issues. Lipinski is also one of the caucus' 48 members. 

The Chronicle's Ben Leonard sat down with Lipinski and Reed after the talk to discuss the institutional role of the president in bipartisan cooperation. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Chronicle: Given both of your roles in the Problem Solvers Caucus, what do you think is the institutional role of a president in gaining bipartisan support? Some will point to President Obama and say partisanship was strong then, as it is under President Trump. How important is the president's position in that regard?

Tom Reed: The more the president can engage with members and work across the aisle, the stronger the agenda is going to be. Historically, the fundamental reforms that have withstood the test of time have been bipartisan. You look at Social Security, you look at welfare reform, tax reform in the Reagan years, done in a bipartisan fashion. Those withstood decades worth of changes of administration and parties in the House and Senate. 

That's one thing I give President Trump credit for. Dan talked about him welcoming members down to the White House to have meetings. That's not a bad thing. Hopefully, the president is going to continue to reach out. When you talked to people on the Hill about President Obama, I thought it was just me. 

I wrote 16 letters to President [Obama], many of them hand-written, and didn't even get a courtesy response from a staffer saying, "Thank you for your input, we'll take it into consideration and get back to you." I thought it was just me, but Democratic members were treated that way too. There's a lot to be said about setting the tone. I hope this administration and future administrations learn those lessons, embrace the other side, engage the other side, and try to find common ground. 

TC: In terms of setting the tone as you mentioned, one of the common critiques of President Trump from both sides of the aisle has been that he has politicized justice in some ways, with regard to the FBI and Robert Mueller's investigation. What sort of precedent does that send and is that something a president should be doing?

TR: The Twitter politics of the day, many of us expressed our disagreements with the President on that. The issues are deeper than 140 characters. I would hope the administration starts to appreciate that more going forward. When it comes to justice, this is the nature of the beast today. Justice is still made up of many fine men and women that are there for the right reasons. The institution itself is stronger than one person and will survive attacks because at its core, the institution is strong. 

Dan Lipinski: I have really serious concerns about what President Trump is doing in terms of attacking institutions. It didn't start with him, but he's carrying it to a further degree. He doesn't understand the importance of these institutions. A lot of Americans don't understand how important these institutions are to the functioning of our country. 

If you tear institutions down, if people don't trust these institutions, it makes the whole system fall apart. That's a real problem right now. I wish someone could reign President Trump in and say, "you can't do this for your own political purposes." We understand what you are doing. Politically, it's helpful to do this. But these are the Justice Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigations. These are important institutions people need to trust. If people don't trust them, our country can't function. But he sees everything as political. 

He's willing, as many people are—some of the resistance to Trump has gone too far in saying anything is okay because we are fighting someone who is so bad. If there's classified information that gets leaked, that's fine if it hurts Trump. That again is destruction of institutions. It's hard to defend because in politics, many people don't talk about that. The general public doesn't have an understanding of the importance of trust in institutions. If you don't trust institutions, you can't have a democratic system.