Jonathan Mong/Sun News Editor

Former House representatives Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.) shared their experiences during guest lecture "Searching for the Center" on Tuesday.

March 22, 2023

Former Representatives Advocate for Bipartisanship, Civility, Moderation at Brooks School Event

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In an effort to bring civility and centrist-minded politics to America’s doorstep, former House representatives Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.) visited campus on Tuesday for a lecture called “Searching for the Center.” 

The Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy sponsored the event as part of its Learning and Leading Through Difference Initiative, which the Cornell Roosevelt Institute co-sponsored. Arranged by No Labels — an organization seeking ballot access to run a bipartisan “unity ticket” in 2024 if both parties select nominees that are too extreme — the panel was moderated by Liz Morrison, No Labels’s co-executive director.

Upton represented Michigan’s fourth congressional district from 1987 to 1992 and its sixth congressional district from 1993 to 2022 before retiring, while Rose represented New York’s 11th congressional district from 2018 to 2020 before losing to Nicole Malliotakis (R-N.Y.) in 2020 and again in 2022. 

While in Congress, Upton served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and was its chairman from 2010 to 2016. Rose, who was in the Army from 2010 to 2014, served on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and the House Committee on Homeland Security during his lone term in office. 

Both Upton and Rose were ranked as moderate to centrist by Govtrack, a website that tracks legislators’ political ideologies. They served together on the Problem Solvers Caucus during Rose’s term.

Following a brief introduction in which both representatives explained their paths to Capitol Hill, Upton and Rose launched into a discussion about political polarization in the United States, occasionally guided by questions from Morrison or from the audience.

Early in the lecture, Rose highlighted what he called the “TMZ-ification” of American politics as a reason why members of Congress were becoming more extreme than in the past, adding that members of Congress now needed to have brands of their own and market themselves to capitalize on financial opportunities prior to leaving office.

“So many members are motivated by these different forces that don’t have anything actually to do with legislative progress. They have to do with, how many retweets did you get? How many small-dollar donations?” Rose said. “There are these weird, perverse incentives pushing people along each and every day. You don’t get on TV for passing bold legislation nearly enough. You get on TV for dividing, for saying things that are incendiary.”

However, Rose went on to highlight Congress’s bipartisanship in recent years, though he hedged his statements by saying that congressional business often revolves around personal politics and relationships.

“[Politics] isn’t a normal business where people ‘get it,’” Rose said. “It’s 435 independent contractors, each with significant egos and each with significant purpose. And each with relatively thin skin and a big, big megaphone.”

Recalling his own experience voting on bills during the COVID-19 pandemic, Upton then pointed out that representatives often did not encounter each other for long periods of time due to proxy voting, which impacted personal relationships and isolated members. Republicans have since eliminated proxy voting — in which representatives had the ability to authorize another representative to vote on their behalf based on specific instructions — after gaining control over the House in the 2022 midterm elections.

“The last vote that I cast was to keep the government open on Dec. 27 with a couple of trillion dollars, because it is called the omnibus appropriation bill,” Upton said. “More than half of my colleagues who voted… on that bill voted by proxy. They weren’t there in person, because [proxy voting] was allowed because of COVID.”

Following the moderated portion of the lecture, Upton and Rose answered questions from the audience on a variety of topics — ranging from how to bring people on both ends of the political spectrum together, to the barriers that they have seen affecting female and minority members of Congress, to questions about their staffers.

When asked about barriers to female and minority representation, Rose predicted that the first female U.S. president would be part of the freshman representative class of 2018, despite the existing barriers to political leadership women have faced. 

“In that class of 2018, I’ll make a prediction. I think the first female Democratic president of the United States will come out of that class. I mean, it is just an unbelievable group of leaders, female and minority,” Rose said. “You look at people like Mikie Sherill [(D-N.J.)] and Abigail Spanberger [(D-Va.)] and Elissa Slotkin ’98 [(D-Mich.)] — from Maryland, Lauren Underwood [(D-Md.)] — the list goes on and on and on.”

Rose lauded the work that several female members of Congress have done, both before and during their time in Congress.

“We’re also seeing now in [the incoming class after the 2018 midterm elections], especially and thereafter, really incredible national security leaders who are women, which I think is a really, really powerful and important thing — having [people like] Spanberger, a former CIA operative, versus former members [of the military],” Rose said. “But then you also look at dynamic female leaders in the Democratic caucus like [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)], for instance, who I considered and still consider a friend as well. … [Congress] and the country just benefit so much from this diversity of leadership.”

When asked about how bipartisan candidates can maintain visible public presences and win elections, Upton emphasized the importance of doing individual work for his districts rather than making national headlines with inflammatory quotes.

“People didn’t really care if I had an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ next to my name.…They just want the job done,” Upton said. “That’s really what they want to see, you’re there to fix the road. You’re there on national issues. You’re going to support your veterans.”

After the event, Morrison and both representatives stayed to converse with audience members. Upton and Morrison spoke to The Sun on a variety of topics, including the viability of No Labels as a political movement and what Ithacans — who now live in New York’s 19th congressional district, a swing district — should be looking for in a bipartisan, consensus-minded candidate.

Upton commented that most Americans were more moderate than Congress. He said that although the 24/7 media cycle has contributed to political polarization, No Labels has helped to find a middle ground and assert the political center’s place in modern American politics. He then went on to add that No Labels has helped candidates such as himself and Rose get funding from individual donors to assert a political center.

“No Labels, they look at the record and they’re able to help financially work individual donors, because they don’t want to have a PAC or don’t think they do,” Upton said. “But more than that, just by bringing people together particularly well.”

Morrison said that Ithacans should focus on incumbents’ voting records in Congress and judge their bipartisanship on their actions rather than their words. Specifically, she urged voters to consider whether candidates are getting bills through Congress, introducing and passing legislation and co-sponsoring bills.

“Look at their voting record,” Morrison said. “If you don’t see that kind of activity, if you see them just spout rhetoric and vitriol on the news or on Twitter, maybe not. But if you see them putting in the hard work, and passing bills and delivering, if you see them come home, having town halls, engaging with their voters and their constituents, then [they will be bipartisan].”