Ambassador Tim Roemer and Congressman Zach Wamp Speak on Divided Government

On Wednesday September 25, 2019, former Ambassador Tim Roemer and former Congressman Zach Wamp spoke at the Rockefeller Center about the nature of partisan politics in the United States and presented solutions to this political dysfunction. Ambassador Roemer and Congressman Wamp are co-chairs of Issue One’s ReFormers Caucus, a bipartisan coalition arguing for cooperative and pragmatic solutions to the structural problems plaguing our political system. They enjoy the support of more than 200 current and former members of Congress and serve as an inspiration for the bipartisan Congressional Reformers Caucus in the House of Representatives. 

The lecture began with both Roemer and Wamp expressing alarm at the country’s current trajectory, with Roemer warning of an American democracy afflicted by discord at home and under assault by foreign powers and the rise of authoritarianism abroad. Wamp bemoaned that the U.S. had devolved into a “tribal environment” and that “confidence in our institutions is on the decline.” Congress is “institutionally corrupt,” he declared. 

Issue One has set out to restore the faith of the average American in the country’s democratic system. The former politicians believe gerrymandering is one culprit for this disintegrating faith and a cause of increased partisan division. 

“If you look at the national Congressional map, gerrymandered as it is, it is a textbook case for the disfunction we now see in Washington, D.C. where no one gets along with each other” said Wamp. “We split families, communities, neighborhoods, streets for the wrong purposes” 

This past June, Wamp co-authored an article published in The Atlantic with former Democratic Congressman Steve Israel. The two bemoaned the U.S. Supreme Court decision to legalize gerrymandering. While Wamp asserts gerrymandering is not directly in the “lane” of Issue One, he and Roemer argue it is a destructive practice fueled by party loyalty.

In their lecture, Wamp emphasized that this democratic decline was not the fault of Democrats nor Republicans, but rather of a corrupt political system that encourages placing party over country. He criticized the tendency of partisans to blame one another for the country’s woes. “Blame,” he said, “has become a political tool.”

Roemer and Wamp next addressed ways they hoped to mend these structural problems. Their closely-held belief that cross-party cooperation is possible comes from their respective tenures in the nation’s highest legislature.

In 2001, Wamp served as the Chairman of the National Prayer Breakfast. He remarked that such faith-centered events are places where our nation’s leaders gather and, for that brief time, party labels are set aside.

Likewise, Roemer is no stranger to diplomacy. Before his time as U.S. Ambassador to India, he worked on bipartisan efforts as a member of the House’s Education Committee. As the son of educators, he was determined to reach across the aisle to create organizations like AmeriCorps and to make higher education more affordable for all Americans. 

Through the ReFormers Caucus, Roemer and Wamp have been “recruiting people one by one inside and outside Congress.” Encouragingly, they have met with “40 newly-elected Congressmembers” to emphasize the need for political civility and rising above the partisan “food fights” that have dominated our politics. They hope that their efforts will improve our toxic political climate. 

Roemer’s optimism stems in part from his experience as a member of the 9/11 Commission. “It was the worst of times, and it was the best of times,” said Roemer. “It could’ve been the spiraling down of American like [Osama bin Laden] wanted...Instead, Americans came together…” Unity in the face of tragedy demonstrated the American capacity for resilience. “We temporarily got out of the tribalism we descended into today... We need to get back to that.”

In their concluding remarks, both leaders expressed hope for the country and the young people who will soon govern it. Young people are “patriotic and pragmatic,” Wamp said. If the country can rise above the political food fights that have dominated its politics recently, Roemer and Wamp were emphatic that this “revolution…to save our democracy” will succeed.

-Written by Blake McGill ’22 and Ben Vagle ’22, Rockefeller Center Student Program Assistants for Public Programs