Tim Bradley, Staff Writer

Former U.S. Representative Tom Allen, a Democrat from Maine, delivered the keynote address for the 2012 Notre Dame Law Review Symposium on November 16 at the Eck Hall of Law. The symposium, titled “The American Congress: Legal Implications of Gridlock,” was a part of the ongoing year-long forum, “A More Perfect Union,” instituted by University President Father John Jenkins, C.S.C.

Richard Garnett, Associate Dean and Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School, spoke briefly on the timely theme of the future of American democracy. He emphasized Jenkins’ comments that Notre Dame is a moral voice for the country and therefore has a duty to speak and think and act as a guide for the nation and the world. Garnett then introduced former Rep. Allen, who was a Rhodes Scholar and mayor of Portland, Maine, before serving in Congress from 1996 to 2008. While in Congress, Allen served on several committees, including the Budget Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Allen’s address explored some of the material from his upcoming book, Dangerous Convictions: Why Cherished Ideas Can Be a Source of Congressional Gridlock. He began by describing what it is like to be in Congress, and likened it to going down a whitewater river day after day with rocks looming ahead but never being able to reach the shore. With that less-than-reassuring image in mind, Allen continued to explain that, in his opinion, the issues that are often discussed on the floor in Congress do not seem to be central to the polarization between the Democratic and Republican parties; the real differences are rarely addressed in a constructive way.

One reason for this disconnect is that members of Congress hardly know each other – they spend a lot of time away from Washington and put a lot of effort into campaigning for money. In addition, when items were up for debate on the House floor, it did not matter what specific issue was being discussed because the politicians always came back to the fundamental divide—the role of government. According to Allen, the Democrats look at the Republicans and ask themselves, “Do these guys really believe what they are saying?” On the other side of the aisle the Republicans look at the Democrats and think, “I can’t believe that all they do is pander to voters.” Neither party seems willing to attribute good-faith motives to the folks across the aisle.

Allen described this fundamental misunderstanding as the “beginning of the causal chain of reasoning that eventually has led to these two parties locked in combat over what it means to be an American.” There will always be some fundamental argument regardless of the specific topic being debated, mainly due to the fact that each party is stereotyped: the Republicans are inattentive to evidence and unconcerned about Americans struggling to get by, whereas the Democrats infringe on personal freedom and create a culture of dependency.
Allen went on to provide examples of the fundamental differences between the parties in the areas of health care, the budget, climate change, and the war in Iraq; he concluded that most of these differences are reconcilable. Allen noted several things that need to change in order for the fundamental clash between the parties to be alleviated: greater respect for evidence, more tolerance for ambiguity, acknowledgement of consequences and recovering a shared concept of the common good. It is hard to compromise if there is no agreement about what counts as expertise and evidence, as well as if people continue to demand absolute consistency from people in office when reality demands flexibility.

In closing, Allen remarked that many of these political differences derive from religious differences. “We build our churches in politics,” he said. Religion and politics are not separate but are instead complementary. Despite the differences between the parties and what all evidence would indicate, Allen remains an optimist. “I feel that cooperation and self-reliance in politics is the path forward for all to work for,” he said.

The address was followed by a question and answer session which included questions on the possible moderation of voters indicated by the defeat of polarizing candidates such as Indiana Representative hopeful Richard Mourdock, term limits for congressmen, and a Constitutional amendment to manage the amount of money involved in political campaigns.

Tim Bradley is a freshman studying economics and theology. He lives in St. Ed’s, where, unlike in government, everyone gets along great! He can be reached at tbradle5@nd.edu.