Flake, Kyl denounce dysfunctional Congress' hyper-partisanship, blame the media

Dan Nowicki
The Republic | azcentral.com
The U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake and retired Sen. Jon Kyl lament the lack of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake and former Sen. Jon Kyl last week lamented the hyper-partisanship that has paralyzed Congress, blaming the dysfunction on a combination of a 24/7 "media culture" and a lack of Capitol Hill leadership.

"The media culture, the way it is, it rewards the extremes," said Flake, an Arizona Republican who is retiring from the Senate after one term. "And there just is no market for being one to compromise. And until voters will value that again, we're going to have the problems that we do today.

"And that's the problem: There's just no reward for governing right now. And perhaps that will come back," Flake continued. "I hope it does."

READ MORE: Flake: My party may not deserve to lead

Kyl, Flake's Republican predecessor who served three terms in the Senate from 1995 to 2013, said he puts "a lot of the blame at the feet of the media," which he says "creates fights" and eggs on "the participants to the point that they keep fighting," dissolving any goodwill between members from the two parties.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, says we need to confront climate change. “It gives urgency to what’s going on right now.”

"Remember what the object of a person on television is: It is to get ratings so that the station can do better so that they can make more money," Kyl said. "It is not to educate. It's not to be fair. It's to appeal to an audience."

Partisan leaders on the Hill perpetuate the problem, Kyl said, by encouraging their members not to reach out across the aisle out of fear they might give their rivals cover on a particular issue.

Kyl and Flake reflected on the erosion of Capitol Hill bipartisanship Wednesday as part of the Arizona State University Barrett Honors College's John J. Rhodes Lecture in Public Policy & American Institutions, a 20-year series honoring the late former U.S. Rep. John Rhodes, an Arizona Republican from Mesa who served as U.S. House minority leader from 1973 to 1981.

READ MORE: Flake blasts Trump, stokes presidential-campaign speculation

Rhodes, who died in 2003, is remembered as one of three prominent Hill Republicans — Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona and Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania were the others — who informed President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal that he faced all-but-certain impeachment, conviction and removal from office. 

J. Scott Rhodes, his son, moderated the conversation with Flake and Kyl at the Paul V. Galvin Playhouse on ASU's Tempe campus.

The hourlong discussion mostly focused on Congress' current state of dysfunction.

Former U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona.

"There is no question that the mood, the attitude of the members, the way that they generally, at least publicly, treat each other, and the inability to legislate in a way that I think the Founders intended, are all a function of the fact that party partisan politics has become the dominate theme in Washington today," Kyl said.

While in office, Kyl was his party's whip, the No. 2 GOP Senate leader. He drew applause when he said "the word that describes Washington is hypocrisy" because Republicans and Democrats alike dig in to protect their party's presidents, sometimes taking different positions depending on who is in the White House.

"You have to be able to agree with them when you agree, and disagree when you disagree, and not simply fall all over yourself to just support the president of your party," said Kyl, who acknowledged he was guilty of it at times during President George W. Bush's administration. "Both parties do this, and it's one of the problems that exist in Washington."

READ MORE: Flake: We'll impeach President Donald Trump if he fires Robert Mueller

Kyl also cautioned against ascribing motives to opponents because that breeds distrust.

"Your worst enemy today always is the guy you need tomorrow. It never fails," Kyl said in giving advice that he said applies to presidents and senators and representatives alike. "So don't be a jerk."

One light moment came after Kyl said he couldn't recall ever being directly threatened by a president.

"I wish I could say I haven't been threatened by the White House," Flake said to laughs and applause.

Flake, who has been flirting with a 2020 presidential bid, has been an outspoken Republican critic of President Donald Trump, who has at times responded to Flake in kind. 

READ MORE: Would Flake stand a chance in N.H.'s influential presidential primary?

Flake also complained that the Senate doesn't vote as often or on as big of issues as it once did.

"I've always thought — I'm sure Senator Kyl would agree — the Senate has six-year terms because you need to take tough votes," Flake said. "You have six years to explain it."

Like Kyl, Flake said in some cases party leaders tell their members not to collaborate with members on the other side of the aisle.

Nowicki is The Arizona Republic's national political reporter. Follow him on Twitter, @dannowicki.