We all heaved a sigh of relief with the end of the nasty 2010 campaigns. The American people had spoken, and they chose divided government. A new Republican majority in the House and a very slim Democratic majority in the Senate are poised to try to govern in a partnership of necessity with President Obama.
In a sense, we always have divided government, regardless of party alignment. The constitutional system crafted by the founders in 1787 is not a parliamentary system. Power does not devolve upon the party that wins the most seats in Congress. Rather, we have a system of divided powers and checks and balances — divided at the national level among the two houses of Congress, the president and the courts, and divided federally between a national government and the states.
The Constitution's architecture is designed to make sure that national power is exercised with constraint, after deliberation and with an implicit presumption of consensus. So even in the best of circumstances, members of Congress need to find common ground, work together and compromise to address national problems.
Against that constitutional backdrop, the election results must not be seen by party leadership or members — whether majority or minority — as an opportunity or excuse to posture and obstruct in order to gain political advantage for 2012. We can't afford to continue the petty politics of the campaign season. We face too many problems: the economy, budget deficits, a failed education system, crumbling infrastructure, immigration, our dependence on foreign oil — the list goes on and on.
For those of us who have been fortunate enough to serve in Congress, its recent dysfunction is especially troubling. We have experienced its better days — always far from perfect — when the nation's business was conducted with greater civility and, not coincidentally, usually with better results.
The 112th Congress must engage in crafting and debating serious proposals about serious problems with serious attention to working together to find consensus. The time to start is now, even before the new Congress convenes in January.
Knowing this, some 135 former members of Congress from both parties and both houses recently wrote to everyone running for Congress. We urged those elected to prepare to serve with a view to the constitutional necessity of compromise and consensus-building.
We may have some credibility because "we've been there." But it is the American people who hold the real authority to demand an end to bad behavior in Washington and to call on every member, the leaders of both parties, and the president to stop the partisan game and work together.
Each of us, as a citizen of our great nation, must do his part. Nothing less will do. In this spirit, we invite all to sign the Citizens' Petition for Common Ground endorsing our call for a civil and productive 112th Congress at fmocforcommonground.org/citizenpetition.html.
John Porter is a former Republican congressman from Illinois. David Skaggs is a former Democratic congressman from Colorado.