A Bipartisan Tour of Wyoming
The stars in the Wyoming night sky were so clear you could taste them. Out of the darkness above, they oozed thick through the atmosphere, dripping jewels of celestial light everywhere.
Sometimes you have to take mental screenshots of what you see and save it in a special file in your brain’s memory card—like when I saw the Grand Canyon for the first time at night, a huge black void bigger than comprehension; or the full moon rippling across the waters all-Pirates-of-the-Caribbean-esque off the coast of the southernmost southernmost point of Key West.
This night at a ranch in the Laramie Mountains was one of those moments—and thankfully, even though I was drop-dead (err, fall-asleep-walking) tired, I still remember looking up and hitting the proverbial print screen key in my mind.
After a 4:30am ride to the airport from a friend, a breakfast wrap and tea, a 6:00am flight from Reagan to O’Hare, a delicious airport Terminal 1 stop for Jamba Juice, another flight from O’Hare to Denver, a cheap Mexican burrito bowl, and finally a quick hop to Casper, I had arrived in Wyoming, along with a bipartisan crew of congressional staffers. With the time change, it was noon Mountain Time when we boarded the bus—with lunch boxes on board for everyone—that would wheel us all over the northeast corner of the state. There was enough time for ten hours of “work” ahead of us.
Trips congressional staffers get to take are work but they are also the best part about the job. Representational government would be a pointless idea if those tasked with being representatives never got to see exactly what they are representing.
Onto the bus we went, passing a wind farm, headed for a uranium mine. In the days to come we learned about everything from ranching to crazy wild west stories, debates over water use and the Powder River, coal mining, oil drilling, and fish hatching as we dropped in and out of small towns and rolled over acres of prairie around the state.
When you’re preparing vote recs in Congress, writing speeches, or crafting legislative proposals, it helps to have a visual knowledge (at least on an introductory level) of the topics at hand. But what I will always remember about that trip to Wyoming almost two years ago is what it taught me about bipartisanship. As a follower of Jesus*, I’ve been struck by our calling to debate from a point of rest, out of respect, always willing to listen to what the other side has to say. But even if this calling doesn’t yet resonate with you, walk with me through the memory of this trip, and see if your perspective might change too.
The vision for LIBERATUS was born—or perhaps clarified—on the way home from that Wyoming trip, and this isn’t the first and won’t be the last time I talk or write about it I am sure.
Imagine you’re standing at the edge of a coal mine, shoulder to shoulder with someone who—perhaps in Washington—would be your “enemy.” The scale of it—70-foot coal seams and a production process stretching far and wide over the landscape—almost has the feel of the Grand Canyon.
As you stand there, you talk about how many years and years the amount of coal that’s there could fuel the world’s electricity needs (some people still don’t have flip-of-the-switch electric power twenty-four seven—if they even have switches to flip!). You talk about what it takes to get it out of the ground, how to engineer the ramps down to the bottom of the seams so the trucks that are bigger than your house (their wheel axles are as high as the top of my head at 5’6”) can make it down and back up—and for our bus to make it down into the mine and back up. You talk about reclaiming the land, replanting grass, how long it will take for antelope to come back. You talk about burning the coal and what that does to the air you’re breathing every day (especially if you live there) and what you can and can’t do to mitigate that while making production feasible. And you just stand there, and you just talk about it, and by now the crew riding around on the bus have built a sort of camaraderie and there’s no asking questions to prove points, no moral outrage, no news releases to the press slamming the guy you’re standing next to because he places value on the balance between energy production and environmental care slightly differently from you. There’s no “urgent” fundraising emails, no constituent-activists to impress on Facebook. You just talk about it and learn and let your perspective be challenged by the reality in front of you. And then you get back on the bus.
But the story doesn’t end here, and this is what I was amazed to find this trip: while we debate about fossil fuels and regulations and climate change and CO2 emissions and free markets and government programs, the technology exists not only to capture CO2 and put it back into the ground, but to put it into the ground as a tool for enhanced oil recovery.
On another trip, I saw for myself in Canada that CO2 is not only captured, it is also transferred by pipeline where it is sold as if it actually has value—not just viewed as an evil to eliminate from the atmosphere.
There are all sorts of opinions to be had about the cost-effectiveness of the technology, and who should pay for it. But what’s stunning is that by simply studying, learning, seeing, asking questions, doors can open to solve heated policy debates outside the limits of our silly urgent fundraising emails, outraged press releases, and video clips for YouTube.
Bipartisanship and compromise, then, become not just an argument about whether or not you’re willing to give up what you believe is good for the country, but rather a conversation on how to find good for the country. There are solutions we aren’t finding because we don’t believe in having conversations with each other. And if as a representative democracy we lose our ability to find solutions, then we aren’t really free. The truth is, too often we aren’t fighting for opportunities to engage the other side in well-researched, factual, and focused debates.
Imagine the implications robustly debating the other side would have for Congress (and I’m talking about a heck of a lot more than just tweeting at each other). Currently, each party can hold a “leadership hour” on the House Floor many evenings after votes when the House is in session. A representative from each party will organize topics and talking points and recruit Members to come and make the case for specific policy. And having helped organize an hour on energy policy and sat on the (empty) House Floor as it went down, I know it sure feels great to present what you believe from the chamber that ought to be the Grand Canyon of ideas for how to live and govern as free people.
But here’s the thing: the parties host these hours separately. If we’re going to solve issues, if we’re truly fighting for freedom, then it’s time for actual debate, actual give and take on the House Floor between the parties. We’re not actually fighting for freedom if we’re unwilling to debate the other side. We might call it a leadership hour, but if only one party is allowed to show up then it’s certainly not good leadership if it’s even leading anyone at all.
It’s time for the kind of debate that forces us to stand shoulder to shoulder, or lectern to lectern, learn the nuances of specific issues and wear ourselves out not by being busy but by being productive. It’s time to close our work days tired from the effort it takes to live LIBERATUS—we are set free.
"We're not actually fighting for freedom if we're unwilling to debate the other side."
*Followers of Jesus also have a unique ability to see the debate between environmental care and energy production for our nation and for the world’s poorest economies differently. We are free to value both, without worshiping either, because we know the reason the two seem so at odds is simply because the world is fallen and awaiting the return of Jesus. Consider what Romans 8 says—this is from The Message, and I highly recommend reading through the full chapter.
That’s why I don’t think there’s any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times. The created world itself can hardly wait for what’s coming next. Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in until both creation and all the creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens.
WEEKLY ACTION ITEM:
Find someone you disagree with on a policy position, and ask to meet them for lunch or coffee specifically to talk through the nuances of a legislative proposal you are working on. Offer your ideas. Listen to theirs. Disagree. Debate. Find a solution you wouldn’t have otherwise uncovered.
Want to take this a step further? If you’re a congressional staffer, RSVP “yes” for that trip invitation sitting on your desk, especially if it’s to Wyoming.
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