DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Next week, the 113th Congress of the United States will be sworn in. Polls show Americans are deeply dissatisfied with the current crop of lawmakers and yet they elected a new Congress much like the outgoing one. Democrats will still control the Senate, Republicans will still control the House. As we head into the new year with major issues before the country, we wanted to talk to someone in Congress about what can be done to get the two parties and the two chambers working together again.
We decided on a voice who's been on our air before - Iowa Democrat Bruce Braley. We first met Braley back in 2006. He was a young lawyer running for office for the first time and at a roadside diner he told us he had done just about every job imaginable on his way to becoming an attorney.
REPRESENTATIVE BRUCE BRALEY: I sold Christmas cards door-to-door. I baled hay. I shelled corn. I worked as a janitor. I drove a dump truck. I worked construction...
GREENE: Braley came to Congress in '06 with plenty of other newcomers from his party as the Democrats won a solid majority. How times have changed. The Tea Party movement brought Republicans to power in the House in 2010 and nearly cost Braley his seat. This past November he won a more comfortable victory and he remains a survivor in the GOP-controlled chamber.
Right now a rite of passage is under way on Capitol Hill. With each new Congress, members shuffle into new offices. The veterans get the better digs and Braley is entering his fourth term. So in his new office there are a few new toys.
BRALEY: The big amenity for me is I have a safe in my new office.
GREENE: Oh. And what does an Iowa congressman keep in his safe?
BRALEY: I don't know, because we don't have the combination to the safe yet.
GREENE: But Braley has unlocked a few secrets of Capitol Hill. Like when he returns to Iowa, he knows how to get out of the Washington mindset.
BRALEY: There's a certain transition that takes place when you leave Washington. You get on a plane. I do a lot of reading on airplanes. Some of it is reading related to my work, some of it is historical nonfiction, and some of it is fiction just to take my mind away from the very serious problems that we deal with here on a daily basis. And that way, by the time I land in Iowa, I feel like my mind is more open to the reality of being back home and focusing on the problems of the people in my district.
Sometimes that little bit of buffer is helpful because you get so focused here on some of the enormous challenges we face, you sometimes forget that the needs of your constituents can be very basic and problems that you can help solve, even though it may not involve something going over a fiscal cliff.
GREENE: When I was following you when you arrived in 2007, I spoke to a constituent of yours from - Elkader, Iowa? Am I saying that right?
GREENE: His name's Frank Phippen. He's an independent and at the time he said he really wanted to give you a chance. And we brought along a little recording of what he said back in 2007. I'd love you to hear it.
FRANK PHIPPEN: He's new. He's young. He's energetic. He'll do fine.
GREENE: How long until you hold him accountable?
PHIPPEN: Oh, well, heavens. He should have at least four to six years.
GREENE: We're now six years later and we called up Mr. Phippen to get his thoughts about you right now.
PHIPPEN: Well, I don't dislike him. I'm just not impressed, and you know, it isn't just him in particular. I'm along with everybody else in the country unimpressed with Congress, you know.
BRALEY: Well, I understand why people are fed up with Congress. Even the most basic problems seem insurmountable because of some of the partisan challenges we face. You know, I just took my son Paul to see the movie "Lincoln." People who see that film will be reminded that partisanship has always been a problem in this country. Some of the floor debate shown in that film is very contentious.
So the way I approach my job, I've had an opportunity to serve as a subcommittee chair and as a subcommittee ranking member. And on both occasions I started out by inviting the Republican who is going to be working with me as my counterpart on those subcommittees to lunch, and the very first thing I told both of them was what can I do to help you be successful. And it's amazing how that one simple question opens up opportunities of trust that sometimes are very difficult to find in Congress.
GREENE: President Obama - well, then-Senator Barack Obama - campaigned for you in '06, I mean was up there saying that he would do anything to get you elected, even lick envelopes if it took that.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We'll lick envelopes. If we've got to make phone calls for Bruce Braley, then we'll make phone calls. If I've got to come back to Iowa to campaign for Bruce Braley, I'll come back to Iowa.
GREENE: You once called him your new best friend. What's your relationship with him like today?
BRALEY: I would say that it's cordial, and I have always supported the president. He is extremely busy and has a lot on his plate, and you know, he has been someone who has been very appreciative of the role that Iowa played in his election. So you know, I feel very good about my relationship with the president.
GREENE: This has been a serious criticism from the Republicans, that this is not a White House that has done a great job of outreach to Congress. And we've heard that from some Democrats as well. How do you see it?
BRALEY: Well, I'm sure that every president could do a better job of reaching out to Congress, and there have been times when I have felt like the president would have been better served by having stronger relationships with people in both chambers on both sides of the aisle.
GREENE: What's the first thing you think that the Obama White House should do if they decide that they want to make outreach to Congress more of a priority? What would be a good first step?
BRALEY: This may sound strange, but the congressional picnic at the White House is quite honestly one of the best bipartisan gatherings that we have in Washington because members and their families go in casual clothes. There's no policy agenda. The president and his family are there and people wander around, sit down at picnic tables, visit with each other, oftentimes meet members they've not spent much time with.
Those type of settings happen very rarely out here and maybe starting a series of small group gatherings, where people come out to the White House - and I know that this is incredibly hard because the president has so many important policy-related responsibilities, but to me developing a relationship of trust with members of Congress is an important first step in starting to bridge some of the divide that we are seeing here right now at the end of the year.
GREENE: Thank you so much for taking the time. It was really nice to connect with you again.
BRALEY: It's good to see you.
GREENE: That's Iowa Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley speaking to us in his new office on Capitol Hill, the one with the safe. The next Congress will be sworn in next Thursday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.