Robin Winston, co-founder and principal of the Winston/Terrell Group, (left) moderates a panel discussion with Vanessa Sinders, Bill Moreau and Mel Raines as part of the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site’s “Off the Record: Congress Confidential” event. (Photo submitted by the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site)

By Marilyn Odendahl

The Indiana Citizen

August 25, 2023

Before they talked about bipartisanship, before they talked about relationship building and how legislation is crafted and passed, three former Congressional staffers participating in a panel discussion about Congress started by talking about gridlock.

Mel Raines, who worked both on Capitol Hill and in the White House, saw a benefit to divided government. She highlighted times when leaders in opposing parties had to work together to get legislation passed even while she acknowledged the ability to get things done these days is greatly hampered by the sharp divide in the current Congress.

“I also think that a divided government is what our Founding Fathers intended,” Raines said. “It should be that hard to pass a bill. Those things are important. They affect everything in our country and so it shouldn’t just be that you have an idea and the next day, it’s a law. It’s actually a process for a purpose and I think, typically, government works pretty well when you have both houses of Congress are being run by different parties.”

Raines was one of the participants in the discussion hosted Wednesday by the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site. Entitled “Off the Record: Congress Confidential,” the morning event at the Indiana Roof Ballroom featured Raines along with Bill Moreau and Vanessa Sinders, sharing stories of their work in Washington, D.C., and offering insights into the common traits of successful legislators.

President and COO of Pacers Sports & Entertainment, Raines worked for former Sen. Dan Coats, Indiana Republican, and served as chief of staff for Rep. Susan Brooks, the Republican formerly representing Indiana’s 5th Congressional District. She also served as an assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Moreau served as special assistant to the late Sen. Birch Bayh, Indiana Democrat, and as chief of staff for former Gov. Evan Bayh, the first Democrat elected governor of the Hoosier state in 20 years. A retired attorney with Barnes and Thornburg, Moreau is president and publisher of The Indiana Citizen.

Sinders, founder of Green Sinders Consulting, served as policy director for former Sen. Judd Gregg, the New Hampshire Republican, and as chief of staff for former Sen. Scott Brown, the Massachusetts Republican. She also worked as chief of staff for the Campaign to Fix the Debt.

Robin Winston, co-founder and principal of the Winston/Terrell Group, was the moderator. In his career, he has served as chief of staff to the Louisville Board of Alderman and serving as special assistant to the late Lt. Gov. Frank O’Bannon. He was also chair of the Indiana Democratic Party.

The panelists said a key to congressional action is friendship and the willingness to work with members of the opposite party.

Moreau reflected on the Congress of the 1970s which came together to address some of the historical challenges of the time by passing “some landmark legislation on a bipartisan basis.” Best embodying the bipartisanship, he said, was the camaraderie and collaboration between Indiana’s two senators, Bayh and the late Dick Lugar, a Republican.

“One of the great friendships, I think, in Indiana political history developed based upon mutual respect and admiration,” Moreau said, noting the friendship continued when Bayh’s son, Evan, became a U.S. senator.

From her time working on Capitol Hill, Sinders said the recipe for legislative success includes communication, trust and relationship building.

As an example, she pointed to the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in 2021. The idea of fixing the country’s crumbling roads and bridges had broad support but the effort to write an actual bill and get the votes for passage sputtered until a group of 20 senators – 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans – worked jointly to hammer out a measure that eventually landed on President Joe Biden’s desk.

“I think it came down to those members having personal relationships, being willing to use those relationships to communicate with each other, and really kind of push forward, sometimes with  and sometimes against leadership, to get the bill through the process,” Sinders said. “I think it was a more recent example of when Congress and the White House can come together and get something done that, I think, was really meaningful to Americans.”

Yet, taking unpopular positions can put a congressional member at risk of losing the next election. The book, “Profiles in Courage,” written by John Kennedy while he was a member of the Senate and before he became president, contains stories of eight senators who put the country over their legislative careers.

Asked who they thought could be added to “Profiles in Courage,” the panelists nominated Gregg for his tenacity in marshaling his Republican colleagues in 2008 to support the Troubled Asset Relief Program and former Rep. Liz Cheney for her vocal opposition to the actions of former President Donald Trump.

“I think the best members of Congress and elected officials, in general, are the ones (who know) that that’s not the best job they’ll ever have,” Raines said. “They’re not hanging on to it every day and voting in the way that the winds are blowing. They have a true north.”

Moreau recalled asking Birch Bayh why the senator was such an outspoken proponent for issues like civil rights and women’s rights which did not have strong support in Indiana. Bayh explained he could stand for what he believed was right because elections can be won by the slimmest margins.

“If I get one more vote than the other guy,” Moreau remembered Bayh saying, “…I  get to continue serving the people of Indiana.”

Among the list of current members of Congress they admire, the panelists included Sen. Todd Young, a Republican from Indiana serving his second term in the upper chamber.

“I think he’s just doing a phenomenal job representing us,” Raines said. “The winds aren’t blowing him on any given day; he has this true north and I think he makes us all proud. Having seen him in his sophomore term in the House kind of grow into where he is today, it’s been really fun to watch.’’

At the start of the event, Charles Hyde, president and CEO of the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, read letters from Rep. Andre Carson, the Democrat representing Indiana’s 7th Congressional District, and Young. Both elected officials noted the need for citizens to be engaged in their communities and government.

Young called attention to the Hoosier president and his “unshakable faith” in Democracy.

“As a former senator himself, Harrison saw clearly that the well-being of our republic was highly dependent on a responsive legislative branch and an engaged citizenry,” Young wrote.

Attending the panel discussion were student alumni of the Harrison Presidential Site’s Future Presidents of America program. Winston asked the panelists what their advice was to the young adults.

Both Sinders and Raines encouraged young people to get involved in public service. If they go to work on Capitol Hill, their hard work will be rewarded with more responsibility and the opportunity to make a difference. Most importantly, they should not be disheartened by the turmoil they see in government today.

“Whatever is going on today, this, too, shall pass,” Raines said, pointing out the country survived Watergate. “Don’t avoid public service, please. We need really good people in there who are doing it for the right reasons.”

Moreau counseled them to not lose the hope and aspiration that is driving them to public service.

“Maintain your idealism,” Moreau said. “Washington, D.C., is a place where cynicism passes for wisdom. Don’t let yourself fall into that trap. Please become engaged, become knowledgeable, become informed, do your homework, and maintain your idealism. It will provide you the energy that you need to sustain your public service.”

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