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Lessons of ACE: Regaining Trust in Each Other

The American Congressional Exchange program offers members of Congress the opportunity to build trust across party lines while sharing experiences away from the pressures of Washington, DC. Members of Congress go beyond the normal, essential process of focusing on their constituents’ issues to visit another member’s district to better understand a colleague across the aisle. Through ACE, members gain a deeper understanding of each other’s backgrounds.

The idea seems simple yet has generated groundbreaking discussions. As Rep. David Valadao (R-CA) said during his trip with Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV), “The opportunity to go out to each other’s districts and learn a little bit about [them] it probably helps us highlight those opportunities we didn’t know existed.” Rep. Nikema Williams (D-GA) and Rep. William Timmons (R-SC) went on ACE’s very first back-to-back trips together to Atlanta, Georgia, and Greenville, South Carolina. In Atlanta, the two had the opportunity to meet with small business leaders and learn about workforce shortage concerns that Rep. Timmons understood but was now able to compare with his district’s labor challenges.

As participants on ACE trips have discovered, once members begin to talk with one another about the issues their constituents are experiencing on the ground, it becomes easier to find opportunities for fresh thinking, collaboration, and compromise. This helps to overcome the partisan divide we are now experiencing on a national level.

As a recent study by Brown University documented, the United States is becoming more polarized at a faster rate than other countries. Although many people point to sharply partisan media outlets, social media silos, and the homogeneity of party ideologies as causes of this polarization, political scientists also attribute it to the nationalization of political discussion. Political scientist Daniel J. Hopkins argues “nationalized political behavior is likely to change politicians’ incentives in ways that make it harder to build legislative coalitions.” It is clear “nationalized political behavior” has become the norm and is creating more hostility among members. According to a recent poll, 77% of Americans now disapprove of Congress.

ACE provides one means of shifting the conversation from the national to the local level, allowing members to connect on a personal basis. It provides members opportunities to engage in civil discussions. Members who go on ACE trips often hold opposing viewpoints, but the experience of the trip enables them to trust each other more, identify areas of shared priorities, and pursue additional cross-party conversations. As Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) said, “You can’t work with people you don’t trust, and you can’t trust people you don’t know.”

The ACE program builds the trust that encourages members to collaborate in the future and helps decrease the ‘national political culture’ that is sweeping America.

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