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At League Event, Ray LaHood's Former Chief of Staff Optimistic About Biden Bipartisanship

Man on Zoom screen with small gallery of viewers on top.
Colleen Reynolds
Brad McMillan, longtime chief of staff to former Rep. Ray LaHood, addresses a Zoom version of "Drinks and Dialogue" hosted by the League of Women Voters of McLean County.

Americans have rarely been as polarized as they are today, but Brad McMillan, chief of staff for former Republican Rep. Ray LaHood, believes the country can return to a new era of civility and compromise.

McMillan is now executive director of the Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service at Bradley University in Peoria. The Institute’s motto is, “Changing America Through Bipartisan Leadership,” and it teaches an ethical and collaborative approach to creating public policy.

McMillan told a group from the League of Women Voters of McLean County on Wednesday night that it’s a tough road ahead with so many cultural influences fighting against bipartisanship. But he’s optimistic because he said President-elect Joe Biden has a long history of what he called “bipartisan tendencies.”

“We haven’t had a president over the last four years that has had any inclination towards bipartisanship or reaching across the aisle. So, now that we have a president that does have that inclination, that’s a step in the right direction,” McMillan declared.

McMillan, who is running for Normal Town Council in April, considers himself an independent voter. He believes compromise is good, but laments that so many other state and federal lawmakers now see it as a sign of disloyalty to their respective political parties. McMillan was an intern for Bob Michel, former Republican minority leader of the U.S. House, who was known for his bipartisanship.

According to McMillan, Michel was the longest-serving minority leader, but he managed to get things done because he had a personal relationship with Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill. He points to a similar relationship between President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader and Illinois Republican Everett Dirksen, who helped Johnson get the votes needed to pass the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.

They had a long history of battling during the day, but shared drinks together at night, and McMillan said that personal relationship helped build trust. Dirksen’s input actually made for a better law, according to McMillan, and that’s a lesson for leaders today.

“You have to include the minority party early and often in the negotiation. You can’t just expect them to come on board at the very end so you have to be very intentional about it,” he said.

McMillan points out bipartisan committees met for more than a year to negotiate the final bill that improved civil rights in the country.

He blames Republican Newt Gingrich with changing bipartisanship forever.

“His approach was throwing hand grenades at the other side,” he shared. When Democrat Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House, McMillan said she was ready for payback and the two parties became more inflexible.

"We've had ebb and flow of bipartisan cooperation throughout history. We're in an ebb right now."

Ray LaHood tried to foster more bipartisanship through his annual civility summits away from Washington, hoping to build personal relationships among legislators. But party leaders held a tight grip on power. With redistricting that kept many incumbents in solidly safe legislative districts, the incentive for compromise also was lost.

According to McMillan, lawmakers during the 1960s voted with their party 65% of the time. Today, that average is 92%.

“We don’t see the independence, the statesmanship and the willingness to work across the aisle as we used to see in the 1960s,” he said.

Former Democratic McLean County Board member George Gordon, a retired Illinois State University professor of politics and history, said there are many examples of bipartisanship from Abraham Lincoln’s gang of rivals, who he appointed to his serve in his administration, to the more recent McCain-Feingold Act that led to campaign finance reform in the mid-1990s.

“We’ve had ebb and flow of bipartisan cooperation throughout history. We’re in an ebb right now,” he observed.

So, aside from the prospects of a more collaborative commander-in-chief, what else gives Gordon and McMillan optimism? They point to the influence of a bipartisan group of citizens called No Labels that is fighting for public policy that’s in the best interest of the country. It has spawned a bipartisan No Labels Problem Solvers legislative caucus that includes U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, a Moline Democrat, among its 50 House members.

The group is behind the recent $908 billion dollars COVID-19 aid package that President Trump has said he endorses. Gordon said it’s encouraging to see a group of centrist lawmakers who are willing to put good public policy ahead of party interests. McMillan also sees the strong influence in Washington of the  Bipartisan Policy Center, advised by retired House and Senate lawmakers as well as former cabinet members. It recently issued a statement outlining requirements for a COVID relief package.

Even if Republicans keep their majority in the Senate after the two runoff elections in Georgia early next month, McMillan thinks Biden will be able to make some progress on his legislative agenda during his  first 100 days in office--generally seen as the honeymoon period when new presidents become more liked shortly after taking office. According to FiveThirtyEight, Biden’s favorable rating is now 55%.

With that, McMillan thinks even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will have to be more flexible and more agreeable. But that certainly hasn’t happened yet. McConnell is currently holding up that bipartisan COVID-19 package for a provision to give permanent liability to protect companies from lawsuits by workers and consumers who are infected by the coronavirus.

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