Most will agree that Congress does not have a sterling reputation these days -- in fact, it bears the worst public perception of any of our branches of government. Some words you may hear used to describe the deliberating body: dysfunctional, divided, self-serving, broken.
The most recent approval rating for Congress (as of the publication of this post) is a dismal 14 percent. Has it always been this way? Does it have to be this way now?
Partnership and friendship across the aisle
Successful bipartisan partnerships -- and, dare I say it, even friendships -- do exist in Congress. And these partnerships produce real results for real people. Congress has passed countless laws that affect our lives here in the United States, as well as the lives of vulnerable children and families around the world.
Republican Rep. Frank Wolf represents parts of northern Virginia. He has served in Congress for more than 30 years.
Two World Vision staff members have witnessed one of these positive working relationships firsthand -- one while working for a Republican, and the other, a Democrat.
Randy Tift, now a senior policy advisor for World Vision, worked for Republican Rep. Frank Wolf, who still represents parts of northern Virginia in Congress. Wolf is passionate about global poverty issues and is known as a champion for human rights and religious freedom issues.
Randy served as legislative assistant for foreign affairs and defense, and as desk officer for human rights. At the time, it was highly unusual for a member of Congress to prioritize an issue like human rights so highly that it required a dedicated staff member. Randy served in Wolf’s office from 1988-1990 and continued to support Wolf’s efforts to help pro-democracy leaders while based in Eastern Europe through the late 1990s.
Bob Zachritz, now our senior director of government relations, worked for former Rep. Tony Hall before he came to World Vision. A Democrat from Dayton, Ohio, Hall is passionate about global poverty issues, particularly hunger, which he addresses in his book, “Changing the Face of Hunger.” After serving nearly 24 years in office, Hall left Congress to become the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture and is now executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger.
During Bob's time working in Hall’s office (1993-2003), he served as the executive director of the Congressional Friends of Human Rights Monitors. He also covered foreign affairs, defense, and religious issues for the congressman.
Hall and Wolf disagree on several issues. But they have a continuing deep friendship that has proved incredibly fruitful for vulnerable people all over the world. They share a desire to be instruments for change and find common ground on issues like global hunger, human rights, and religious freedom. Together, they have also worked on issues such as conflict diamonds and gambling.
An enduring fervor for justice and mercy
Their journey of transformation began with a World Vision-hosted trip to Ethiopia during the famine in 1984. While witnessing the needless suffering and death -- as well as the life-saving work of organizations like World Vision -- they developed a sense of fervor and urgency to help this devastated region. Nearly 30 years later, that fervor is still apparent in their lives.
Tony Hall, now the executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger, represented Dayton, Ohio, as a Democrat in Congress for nearly 24 years.
The trip was just the beginning of a special working relationship between Hall and Wolf in their pursuit of justice and mercy. While working for each of the congressmen, Bob and Randy observed Hall’s focus on reconciliation and Wolf’s passion for justice. The two created a powerful dynamic that ultimately produced legislation aimed at helping the poor and vulnerable in the world.
They also developed a solid, Christ-centered friendship. To this day, Wolf and Hall meet weekly to encourage one another in their faith and work and carry each other through personal struggles. Hall and his wife, Janet, even support Wolf in his political campaigns.
Mutual support for a common cause
Randy recalls that this Hall-Wolf dynamic was apparent in their joint advocacy for human rights in Romania in the 1980s, which is one of the topics Wolf discusses in his recent book, “Prisoner of Conscience.” In 1975, Romania was granted Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status by the United States. However, an amendment linked this status to the country’s recognition of human rights. In the mid-1980s, Romania's deteriorating human rights record and the mistreatment of religious and ethnic minorities by dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu became apparent.
With Hall’s support, Wolf initiated a campaign to withdraw MFN status, even though it went against political interests in his own state. Because of this, Wolf faced heavy political pressure -- but through it all, Hall backed him up.
Wolf, Hall, and a few other members of Congress traveled to Romania to evaluate the state of human rights there. During this trip, they met with minority community members to understand what those people were facing.
In late 1987, after a three-year campaign by Hall and Wolf, President Reagan withdrew Romania's MFN status. In advance of expected congressional action, Ceauseșcu reacted by claiming he no longer wanted it. Some believe that the decision to drop Romania’s MFN status helped to bring about the Romanian Revolution the following year. This was a precedent-setting event.
Such was the practice of Wolf and Hall, time and time again. As one sought to address an injustice, the other would provide support.
Not only did this bipartisan model prove productive, but Wolf and Hall exemplified leadership that led to American engagement in an often-dark world of poverty and injustice.
“I know they inspired other members to take up causes of hunger, oppression, or injustice,” says Randy.
To promote change, we need other people
Bob Zachritz (left) and Randy Tift (right) served as congressional staffers for former Reps. Tony Hall and Frank Wolf, respectively. They now work for World Vision in Washington, D.C.
Randy and Bob clearly valued their experiences working for congressmen who use their positions to fight for what is right and just.
“The experience serving someone of integrity so committed to justice shaped my life,” says Randy. “Wolf served with commitment and determination.”
From his time in Hall’s office, Bob says he learned that it is possible and necessary to fight for personal convictions within the political sphere -- but you need the other party and other people. As Hall and Wolf demonstrated, he came to recognize how important it is to find someone whose passions or talents may complement your own.
“I appreciated working for someone who was a model of being positive and engaging…and working across party lines to advance an issue,” Bob explains.
The Hall-Wolf model isn’t a moment of mere nostalgia. Some bipartisan partnerships and friendships still exist in Congress; they just don’t receive the attention they deserve, and too few follow their example. In this hyper-partisan age, our representatives and senators need to know that we value partnership and cooperation -- because both can make a positive impact here in the United States and around the world, particularly for those suffering from poverty and injustice.
It’s up to us to tell Congress to work together to reflect America’s best qualities: equality, generosity, and compassion.
Pray for Congress today -- particularly for respectful dialog and productivity that leads to legislation that benefits those living in poverty. Thank God for those who humbly seek justice for the poor and vulnerable through their public service.
Contact your members of Congress. Encourage them to reach across the aisle to address poverty issues at home and abroad. One of the most powerful ways we can address global poverty is through a robust International Affairs Budget, which funds life-saving interventions for malnutrition, HIV and AIDS, malaria, and more. Urge your members to work together to promote these critical programs. This budget accounts for just 1.4 percent of the entire federal budget.