Through the association of Former Members of Congress (FMC), a flagship program called Congress to Campus has provided undergraduate students with a unique perspective into civic service for over forty years. By visiting campuses in bipartisan pairs, the speakers model a civil conversation centered around respect, despite having differing political viewpoints.
Through this program, students not only get to engage with congressional members on matters of policy, but they also receive insight into the day-to-day routine on Capitol Hill and gain perspective on what it takes to serve the American people.
Pepperdine’s Seaver College and the School of Public Policy had the fortunate opportunity to partake in this program and welcome two former Congress members to the university’s sunny Malibu campus. On January 22, Mimi Walters (R-CA) and Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) gave an evening lecture on the values of healthy partisanship to Pepperdine faculty and students.
Touching upon subjects such as public policy, the House floor behind closed doors, and the unspoken harmony between the Democratic and Republican parties, Walters and Lowenthal dispelled the widely held belief that Democrats and Republicans can’t get along. While their political parties and respective agendas certainly differ, the following responses from their interviews with the Beacon and lecture reveal that beyond their differences, they share a unanimous desire for a stronger America.
THE JOURNEY LEADING UP TO PUBLIC SERVICE
When asked about the steps that naturally led the two to a life of public service, Lowenthal answered that the thought had never occurred to him until he was a faculty member at California State University when realized that he wanted to become more of an influence in matters of social justice.
“I became involved in community projects and became active in a group in Long Beach [where] many of the people felt they were disenfranchised. We would go down before the city council, pound on the table, and demand justice. Then, I realized, ‘You know, I could be on the other side and do more as a member of the city council,’” Lowenthal explained.
Walters, on the other hand, was well aware of her aspirations in public service beginning in high school. “I got involved in student government. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to run for junior class president.” Walters ended up winning the run for class president not only during her junior year but also in her senior year.
During her undergraduate studies at UCLA, Walters took her passions to Capitol Hill, where she completed an internship under Bill Thomas (R-CA) during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. After acquiring work experience and continuing her involvement in UCLA’s student government, Walters’ political passions only grew further in certainty. “I knew someday I wanted to run for office, but I wanted to get married, I wanted to have a family. As I checked those boxes, I finally ran for city council in 1996.”
FINDING PARTISANSHIP ON CAPITOL HILL
After crossing the threshold onto the House floor, Lowenthal and Walters witnessed firsthand the congressional relationship between the Democrats and Republicans. Whether the public is aware of it or not, both members found that the two parties needed to work together to progress many of the bills that reach the House floor– bills that are rarely covered by the media.
“[The news media] doesn’t like to talk about the bills that both sides agree on,” Walters voiced. “But they like to talk about controversial bills because those make news. Typically, the way a bill, such as the budget right now, is going to get passed is by both sides coming together.”
Lowenthal added, “The ranking members and the chairs of the appropriations committee don’t always agree, but they become a team. They know of those [issues] where there’s going to be a fight, but the vast amount of material in our budget that we are funding is worked out in a bipartisan way that you never hear about.”
Despite this, Lowenthal believes more can be done to instigate a spirit of bipartisanship. “You know, it used to be that members came to Congress, and they lived together. Their families grew up together; they went to the same schools and the same community meetings. There is no longer a sense of [that community] in Congress,” Lowenthal confessed. “Without a sense of community, we don’t have an overarching set of values and a sense of being one nation.”
“There’s so much demand on members of Congress to be in their districts on the weekends, and [as a result] they can’t be in Washington, D.C.,” Walters added. “They can’t develop relationships with their colleagues on the other side of the aisle. I think it’s a disservice. Because if you get to know somebody and you want to work with that person, you’ll be able to find common ground. You can’t necessarily find common ground with somebody unless you have the opportunity to develop that relationship.”
EXAMPLES OF BIPARTISAN SUCCESS
Reflecting upon specific moments where bipartisanship flourished, Walters recalled a piece of legislation that she carried with Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) that was concerned with survivors of sexual assault. Walters clearly saw the reasoning behind the legislation, which only fueled a successful alliance between her and Lofgren. “She and I got together, we carried the legislation, and it passed unanimously out of the House and the Senate.”
Lowenthal shared the origins of his friendship with former Congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC), which began in 2012 when new members of Congress came together for a class picture. Lowenthal naturally fell into conversation with the individual posing next to him, who was none other than Meadows. From there, Lowenthal developed a relationship with Meadows, introducing each other to their wives and families. Little did he know, their connection would bypass small chit-chat and stretch to the House floor.
“The first bill I introduced didn’t go anywhere, because it’s very hard for new members, especially if you’re [tackling] large issues,” Lowenthal explained. “The first sponsor was Mark Meadows.”
Meadows also invited Lowenthal on a Freedom Caucus business trip, and while it was odd for a left-leaning person like himself to go, Lowenthal confessed that the trip ultimately procured valuable relationships. “I can call upon them for individual favors, and they can call upon me for the same.”
REPRESENTING A DIVIDED NATION
However, despite the unseen collaboration that occurs in Congress, the rest of the nation is undoubtedly in a polarized state. Rather than viewing divided civilians as a detriment to democracy, Walters and Lowenthal view it as a testament to a diverse nation and a slow-moving government.
“Our founding fathers really designed this system to have a divided government,” Walters argued. “We like a divided government in this country, because then, more people will have a say, and it forces the middle to come together.”
Lowenthal further explained, “The founders of this nation looked at Europe and decided that they did not want a government where there were radical changes all the time.”
“Right,” Walters agreed.
“They wanted stability,” Lowenthal continued. When addressing the current differences dividing citizens across the U.S., he stated an important reminder and a key component to the success of partisanship: “You know, it’s not always important to agree with someone on every issue. But,” he concludes, “it’s important to have respect.”