Jane Harman, a Democrat, represented California in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993 to 2011, chairs the board of Freedom House and is president emerita of the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Woodrow Wilson, who never served in Congress, did it. Harry S. Truman, who served for two terms in the Senate, did it. And Biden, who spent 36 years in the Senate, should follow their lead.
The midterms sent a message that voters are tired of crazy. They want Congress to get things done. Some members are taking this to heart, as evidenced by the 12 Senate Republicans who voted for the same-sex marriage bill. Other obvious priorities are amending the 135-year-old Electoral Count Act to prevent a constitutional crisis like the one we came close to on Jan. 6, 2021; passing the 2023 federal budget; and raising the debt ceiling to avoid default.
But with the Senate and White House in Democratic hands, and the Republicans set to take over in the House, gridlock is inevitable. Or is it? What might be achieved if the president set regular office hours in the Capitol? Wilson used the “President’s Room” there to meet and debate with members. Historians credit his regular presence as the reason his big domestic agenda was adopted. Truman acted as his own liaison to Congress, proclaiming that he spent most of his time bringing “people in and try[ing] to persuade them to do what they ought to do without persuasion.”
In addition to passing the budget and raising the debt ceiling, an experienced legislator such as Biden might get Congress to assure allies that the United States will continue to support Ukraine, take additional steps to defend Taiwan while making clear that the United States also still supports the “one China” policy, and enact sensible immigration reform, including an expedited asylum policy.
Some might say Biden already speaks regularly to members. But as a former House member, I know there is no substitute for face-to-face discussion. Congress is a human institution. Biden’s meetings on the Hill would be off the record and provide time for leisurely give-and-take, especially for those, in either party, who want to express their disagreement. True, some members might spin or leak the contents of conversations, but I doubt it would happen too often: It would benefit them more to build trust with the president and each other.
Not so long ago, bipartisanship was prized and rewarded. Are those days over for good? Congress can’t fix itself — gerrymandered districts and party leadership contests promote more rivalry than less. But the president, who honed his interpersonal skills in the Senate over so many years, has the chance to make Washington really work again for the first time since Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill disagreed (agreeably) by day and met for drinks at night.
That’s what voters want. The question is: Will he seize it?