Sen. Franken and Johanns's Secret Santa Plan to Save Congress

In the aftermath of this week’s Super Committee flop, it’s no longer possible for anyone to pretend that Washington politics aren’t broken. It’s time to find solutions for this deadlock, even if those solutions start small and might seem odd. Case in point: Last week, perhaps in anticipation of the Super Committee flop, Senators Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) organized the Senate’s first-ever Secret Santa bipartisan gift exchange. Franken and Johanns led a group of 58 senators – 21 Republican and 37 Democrat – in the selection of their mystery gift recipients.

While my first reaction to this initiative was skeptical, I believe there is a quiet wisdom in this humble gesture. Without exception, we need to be reminded that those who disagree with us aren’t the caricatures presented on Fox or Daily Kos. Franken and Johanns deserve real credit for thoughtfully addressing Washington’s paralysis at its heart.

Ground rules: First, secrecy: “It is crucial the senators keep secret the identities of the senators they have [drawn],” wrote the organizers. Second, deadline: All gifts are to be exchanged on December 12 at a special party. Third and finally, each gift must cost less than $10. (This last provision means that the Secret Santa initiative will not just be one of the more thoughtful things that Congress has accomplished lately, but also one of the cheapest).

Because the move received limited media attention, reactions have been few and muted. Jezebel offered a bemused précis (which inspired some exceptional comments from readers). But, this initiative deserves more praise than it has received; after months of mostly empty posturing from politicians, the idea strikes me as sincere and authentic.

It’s also nice to see a bipartisan gesture that lawmakers weren’t coerced into making. After the Arizona shootings that targeted Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Congress abandoned its usual partisan seating plan for the State of the Union in January. Senator Mark Udall had proposed publicly that Democrats and Republicans sit together during the address in light of the assassination attempt, and polls showed 72% of Americans in favor of the idea. Lawmakers gave the impression of having been led by the nose, and some went so far as to mock the idea in public.

In a nutshell, that’s what’s so charming and timely about the Franken-Johanns idea: The message is, simply, “Let’s get some perspective. We disagree profoundly, and we’re going to be going at each other again come January 1, but we’re still all colleagues, all Americans. Enjoy the peppermint bark.”

America’s problems obviously will not be solved by an exchange of knick-knacks, but we all need to be reminded of the basic humanity of our political adversaries if we’re to salvage the republic. Hopefully, the Senate will be able to graduate from small, thoughtful gestures to the groundbreaking legislation the country needs.

Photo Credit: Kevin H.