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Asking polar opposites to bridge the gap

By MICHAEL A. SMITH

Insight Kansas

In places, Missouri's Fifth Congressional District and Kansas' Big First are about 100 apart. Politically, they are opposite ends of the universe. This divide makes the "fiscal cliff," gun control, abortion rights and other issues very difficult.

Missouri's Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, and Kansas' Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, are leaders in Congress. Cleaver heads up the Congressional Black Caucus; Huelskamp's is a leading voice in the House Tea Party. Both vote with their parties: Huelskamp 87 percent of the time, Cleaver, 92 percent.

Here they are in their own words:

Cleaver: "Look, if being liberal and progressive means that I care about children, and whether they go hungry, color me liberal. If being a Democrat means that I am concerned about our seniors in the sunset of life, color me Democrat. After all, we are the ones who protected Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, who fought for fair wages, and who ended 'don't ask, don't tell.' "

Huelskamp: "Since our founding, the great American success story has been written because individuals have been able to pursue their talents and dreams free from government control. ... Instead, the president's idea of 'fairness' is providing government handouts only to those who accept his failed programs or gain access to him because of political connections and campaign contributions."

These two embody today's Congress: hard-working, outspoken and ideologically-driven -- opposite ways. Cleaver's gun control is Huelskamp's attack on the Second Amendment. Huelskamp's belt-tightening is Cleaver's attack on the social safety net. Cleaver's access to health care is Huelskamp's slide toward socialism. Huelskamp's holding the line on job-destroying taxes is Cleaver's coddling of the rich.

Even when they agree, they disagree.

A few years ago, Congressman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., proposed Medicaid caps and major Medicare changes. Cleaver and Huelskamp both voted "nay." Cleaver feared the Ryan budget cut these entitlement, or safety net, programs too much; Huelskamp, too little.

Approximately 60 percent of Cleaver's constituents favored Barack Obama (and Cleaver himself) in 2012. More than 70 percent of Huelskamp's preferred Mitt Romney. Huelskamp drew 73.8 percent of the vote in 2010, then ran unopposed in 2012. Roll Call magazine rates both districts as "safe seats."

Let's stop blaming Congress.

"Leaving public office to spend more time with my family" is a comedian's setup line concealing a great truth. Members of Congress are always on the go: floor votes, committee meetings, caucus, strategy sessions and fundraising -- with little or no time off. Then it's home, traveling long distances to hear from constituents that wouldn't want such exhausting jobs themselves.

Cleaver and Huelskamp's constituencies support their congressmen while deploring the do-nothing Congress. These congressmen do what their more politically active constituents ask: fight to a stalemate. Suitable compromise and good public policy follow respectful dialogue and genuine empathy, no matter how deep the disagreement.

If we constituents cannot do this among ourselves, we surely cannot expect our representatives to do it for us.

Michael A. Smith is a professor at Emporia State University. msmith3@emporia.edu