The Hidden Cause of the Congressional Stalemate

There’s a little talked about phenomenon that has been adversely affecting our country’s politics in ways that most people don’t even realize. It’s the way the Congressional Calendar changed where Congresspeople live, thereby eroding the social structure that used to grease the wheels of politics.

I grew in Arlington Virginia, just outside Washington DC. Two guys I went to high school with had fathers who were Congressmen. One was a Republican, the other a Democrat.

Both sons went to the same schools; they played on the same soccer teams. Their mothers went to the same PTAs, and we all ate at the same Pizza Hut on Friday night.

Lots of the other kids I went to school with had parents who were staffers; people from both parties served as Chief of Staff, Office Manager, Press Secretary and the like for a Congressperson or Senator. Their families went to the same parks on the weekend, checked out books from the same public library, and played on the same Little League teams.

As kids, we weren’t aware of the politics at the time. We just knew that a lot of parents worked “on the hill.”

But then things changed. The Congressional calendar was adjusted so that members could live in their districts. Instead of living with their families in DC, they commuted to DC a few days a week during session, but lived in home states.

On the surface it made sense for elected officials to live with their constituents.

But I believe that there was unexpected fallout. It took years to manifest, but we’re seeing the results right now.

When Congressmen lived in DC, their families knew each other. They’d been on sidelines cheering their kids’ sport teams. Their wives and staffees were on the same PTAs. This created a social structure that greased the wheels of the political structure.

It gave people an opportunity to see each other more holistically. When you see a guy trying to cheer his kid up after they lost another game, it’s much harder to demonize him. You’re a lot less likely to be nasty to him if you know you’re going to have to see him in front of your kids.

Even if you don’t like the guy, if both of your wives sit on the same PTA, you’re going to think twice before calling him names in public. Imagine the conversation at home, “You called him what?? I have to see that woman this weekend!”

But when Congressmen (and they were mostly men back then) moved to their home districts, they were no longer part of the same social structure as their colleagues across the aisle. Most senior staffers live in the home district as well. So no one has any natural social connections with anyone from the other side. The only time they meet is when they’re negotiating.

I believe that lack of social proximity is contributing to political polarization more than we realize.

Workplace studies have proven that proximity increased collaboration. A University of Michigan study revealed researchers who occupy the same building are 33 percent more likely to form new collaborations than researchers who occupy different buildings. Other studies have shown similar results.

Proximity improves collaboration, and social connections elevate civility.If members of Congress were forced to sit at Pizza Hut together every Friday with their kids, this problem would already be solved.

But when you get elected by demonizing the other side and you never see them as anything but a political enemy, it’s hard to imagine why you would want to collaborate with them.

We created this people; we can fix it.