A charge to my fellow members of Congress

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By John McCain

Special to The Washington Post

Americans recoiled from the repugnant spectacle of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville to promote their un-American “blood and soil” ideology. There is nothing in their hate-driven racism that can match the strength of a nation conceived in liberty and comprising 323 million souls of different origins and opinions who are equal under the law.

Most of us share Heather Heyer’s values, not the depravity of the man who took her life. We are the country that led the free world to victory over fascism and dispatched communism to the ash heap of history. We are the superpower that organized not an empire, but an international order of free, independent nations that has liberated more people from poverty and tyranny than anyone thought possible in the age of colonies and autocracies.

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Our shared values define us more than our differences. And acknowledging those shared values can see us through our challenges today if we have the wisdom to trust in them again.

Congress has returned from recess and faces continued gridlock as we lurch from one self-created crisis to another. We are proving inadequate not only to our most difficult problems but also to routine duties. Our national political campaigns never stop. We seem convinced that majorities exist to impose their will with few concessions and that minorities exist to prevent the party in power from doing anything important.

That’s not how we were meant to govern. Our entire system of government — with its checks and balances, its bicameral Congress, its protections of the rights of the minority — was designed for compromise. It seldom works smoothly or speedily. It was never expected to.

It requires pragmatic problem-solving from even the most passionate partisans. It relies on compromise between opposing sides to protect the interests we share. We can fight like hell for our ideas to prevail. But we have to respect each other or at least respect the fact that we need each other.

That has never been truer than today, when Congress must govern with a president who has no experience of public office, is often poorly informed and can be impulsive in his speech and conduct.

We must respect his authority and constitutional responsibilities. We must, where we can, cooperate with him. But we are not his subordinates. We don’t answer to him. We answer to the American people. We must be diligent in discharging our responsibility to serve as a check on his power. And we should value our identity as members of Congress more than our partisan affiliation.

I argued during the health-care debate for a return to regular order, letting committees of jurisdiction do the principal work of crafting legislation and letting the full Senate debate and amend their efforts.

We won’t settle all our differences that way, but such an approach is more likely to make progress on the central problems confronting our constituents. We might not like the compromises regular order requires, but we can and must live with them if we are to find real and lasting solutions. And all of us in Congress have the duty, in this sharply polarized atmosphere, to defend the necessity of compromise before the American public.

Let’s try that approach on a budget that realistically meets the nation’s critical needs. We all know spending levels for defense and other urgent priorities have been woefully inadequate for years. But we haven’t found the will to work together to adjust them. The appropriators can’t complete their spending bills, and we’re stuck with threats of a government shutdown and continuing resolutions that underfund national security. A compromise that raises spending caps for both sides’ priorities is better than the abject failure that has been our achievement to date.

Let’s also try that approach on immigration. The president has promised greater border security. We can agree to that. A literal wall might not be the most effective means to that end, but we can provide the resources necessary to secure the border with smart and affordable measures. Let’s make it part of a comprehensive bill that members of both parties can get behind — one that values our security as well as the humanity of immigrants and their contributions to our economy and culture.

Let’s try it on tax reform and infrastructure improvement and all the other urgent priorities confronting us. These are all opportunities to show that ordinary, decent, free people can govern competently, respectfully and humbly, and to prove the value of the United States Congress to the great nation we serve.

John McCain, a Republican, represents Arizona in the U.S. Senate.

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