Across the congressional divide

Michael A. Smith

By A Contributor

In some places, Missouri’s Fifth Congressional District and Kansas’ “Big First” are about 100 miles apart.  Politically, they are at opposite ends of the universe. This divide makes the “fiscal cliff,” gun control, abortion rights, and other issues very difficult. 

Missouri’s Emanuel Cleaver (D-Kansas City) and Kansas’ Tim Huelskamp (R-Fowler) are leaders in Congress. Cleaver leads the Congressional Black Caucus while Huelskamp is a leading voice in the House Tea Party. Both vote with their parties: Huelskamp 87 percent of the time, Cleaver, 92 percent. 

Here they are in their own words:

Cleaver: “Look, if being liberal and progressive means that I care about children, and whether they go hungry, color me liberal. If being a Democrat means that I am concerned about our seniors in the sunset of life, color me Democrat. After all, we are the ones who protected Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, who fought for fair wages, and who ended ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ ”

Huelskamp: “Since our founding, the great American success story has been written because individuals have been able to pursue their talents and dreams free from government control… Instead, the presi-dent’s idea of ‘fairness’ is providing government handouts only to those who accept his failed programs or gain access to him because of political connections and campaign contributions.”

These two embody today’s Congress: hard-working, out-spoken and ideologically-dri-ven… in opposite ways. Cleaver’s gun control is Huelskamp’s attack on the Second Amend-ment. Huelskamp’s belt-tight-ening is Cleaver’s attack on the social safety net. Cleaver’s ac-cess to health care is Huels-kamp’s slide toward socialism. Huelskamp’s holding the line on job-destroying taxes is Cleaver’s coddling of the rich.

Even when they agree, they disagree. In the previous Congress, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) proposed Medicaid caps and key Medicare changes. Cleaver and Huelskamp both voted “nay.” Cleaver feared that the Ryan budget proposal cut these entitlement, or safety net, programs too much; Huelskamp, too little. 

About 60 percent of Cleaver’s constituents favored Barack Obama (and Cleaver himself) in 2012.  Over 70 percent percent of Huelskamp’s preferred Mitt Romney. Huelskamp drew 73.8 percent of the vote in 2010 and ran unopposed in 2012. Roll Call magazine rates both districts as “safe seats.”

Let’s stop blaming Congress. “Leaving public office to spend more time with my family” is a comedian’s setup line conceal-ing a great truth. Members of Congress are always on the go: floor votes, committee meetings, caucuses, strategy sessions and fundraising, with little or no time off. Then it’s home, traveling long distances to hear from constituents who wouldn’t want such ex-hausting jobs themselves.

Cleaver’s and Huels-kamp’s respective constitu-encies support their con-gressmen while deploring the “do-nothing” Congress. These congressmen do what their more politically-active constituents ask: fight to a stalemate. Suit-able compromise and good public policy follow respectful dialogue and genuine empathy, no matter how deep the disagreement.

If we constituents cannot do this among ourselves, we surely cannot expect our repre-sentatives to do it for us.

Michael A. Smith is an assistant professor of political science at Emporia State University.

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