Niki Tsongas builds bipartisanship, one small step at a time

Three-term 5th district Congresswoman Niki Tsongas marches to a slightly different drummer than her colleague Mike Capuano, the subject of yesterday’s blog posting.  Her rhythm is not a march exactly, more a step-by-step piecing together of small scale bipartisan initiatives in an environment in which bipartisanship is an unnatural act.

Tsongas knows that, as one individual,  she can’t make sweeping changes in the tone of the institution.  But from her membership on the House Armed Services Committee, she has learned, despite deep-seated differences between the two parties, to build bi-partisan coalitions. The result she calls “great success.”  She outlined some of those achievements to the New England Council on Wednesday.

The idea that anyone in Congress is experiencing anything that could be called “great success” is stunning on its face.  But, she explains, Armed Services Committee members, away from media glare, have worked across the aisle to improve military body armor, investing in ways to cut the rate of armor-induced skeletal injuries and to develop armor suitable for women in the military and in law enforcement.  On that, she worked with Republican Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland.   

With Republican Mike Turner of Ohio she worked on the problem of sexual assault with the military, affecting, she said, one in three women in the military. A new law recognizes the need to provide better training of unit commanders and facilitate the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault cases.

Similarly she reports success on small business issues, helping minority and women small business owners pool their talents to compete for federal contracts.  Here, Tsongas worked with Republican Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming.  Such collaboration is going on very quietly at the member level, the staff level, and the committee level, and, she claims,  “you can have a lot of impact.”

On the Natural Resources Committee, she worked across the aisle with Republican Chairman Doc Hastings on a land exchange involving the city of Lowell and the federal Historic Park.  The bill got moved out of committee onto the floor and passed the House.  It awaits action in the Senate, where John Kerry has introduced a similar bill. 

Tsongas has also worked successfully with New Hampshire Republicans on the reauthorization of the Small Business Investment Research (SBIR) bill , a law that provides R & D money for businesses too small for access to venture capital.  The coalition stayed together to work with the Small Business Administration (SBA) to help influence the rules for implementing the new aspects of the law.

Tsongas hopes some of the same bipartisanship can be achieved when it comes to looming Social Security and Medicare fights.  As did Capuano, she warned against forgetting where our seniors were a generation ago without adequate support for those entitlement programs.  She firmly believes that the federal government still has a role in job creation. She concedes that the debate stems from differences about how much of a role it should have.  But she is optimistic about progress that can be achieved by reaching across the aisle, one member and one issue at a time. 

Hers is an interesting take on unusually productive  coexistence in Washington. These are not earth-shattering issues, but they could serve as confidence-building measures for other, more daunting challenges. On the other hand, the cynic in me wonders if her issues may just be too small for the Republican leadership to bother stopping. 

Of course, after November, the techtonic plates may well shift:  if there’s a new President, if the Republicans lose seats in the House, if the Senate – where twice as many Democratic seats as Republican are up for reelection – goes Republican.  Any or all of these could bode well or ill for bipartisanship in Washington and the possibility of serious attempts to solve significant national problems.  As for much positive change soon, I’m not holding my breath.

Your comments below are most welcome.

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