Congressional exchanges don’t always involve traveling overseas.
Instead, it can mean going to an entirely different region of the United States, which, depending on your political perspective, can seem like visiting another country.
Last year, that type of exchange brought U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, a Republican representing Arkansas’ 3rd Congressional District, to Washington state’s 6th Congressional District as a guest of U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, Democrat.
Kilmer, in turn, earlier this month visited Womack’s home district in Arkansas.
The two have served together in Congress on appropriations, and Kilmer joined the special, bipartisan committee Womack led while he was chairman of the House Budget Committee in an attempt at bipartisan budget process reform.
Womack told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette that Kilmer’s work in the reform project impressed him.
“We share a common desire for Congress to work together,” Womack told the newspaper during Kilmer’s October visit.
Kilmer, in the same interview, said he was impressed with the industrial development and economic growth in Womack’s district, something he’d like to see more of back home.
The News Tribune recently talked to both in separate interviews to gain insights on their exchange to each other’s district.
One of the main goals was to see the ways the country is more united than divided.
“When I heard about these exchanges, I was like, ‘We should do this,’” Kilmer said.
“I wish more would do it and I think the whole Congress personally would be positively influenced,” Womack said.
Beyond the basic need for bipartisanship to get things done in Congress, Kilmer says he has seen the divide firsthand beyond the Beltway.
He recalled an interaction in 2017 when he was out door-knocking to meet with constituents to find out what was on their minds.
One conversation in Tacoma’s North End exemplified the purpose of his and Womack’s trips, he said.
The man who answered the door asked Kilmer if he knew anyone who voted for Donald Trump. Kilmer said yes.
The man said that he himself, didn’t. And, he wanted to change that.
Kilmer said that type of conversation has not been unusual in meetings with constituents.
“We are at a point that it’s easy to affirm your views and choose your news and social media,” he said. “You have to be able to talk and not have every moment turn into the ‘Jerry Springer Show.’
“So, I’ve been trying to engage those with different perspectives; we have to try.”
For that different perspective, there’s Womack, who has a photo of himself shaking hands with Trump prominently displayed atop his House of Representatives web page.
There’s no picture of Trump glad-handing Kilmer on the Washington representative’s web page.
Flyover country, meet the Pacific Northwest
The exchanges, arranged by the American Congressional Exchange program are funded through private contributions (mostly from foundations) to the Bipartisan Policy Center.
According to the center’s website, “The district of choice is ideally removed geographically, culturally, and politically from the traveling Member’s own district.”
In 2018 it hosted seven events and expects to double that number by the end of this year, according to Jordan LaPier, a center media representative.
“Rep. David Trone (D-MD) just visited Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) in eastern Washington earlier this month, and we expect that Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-CA) will visit with Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA) before the end of this year,” LaPier told The News Tribune via email in response to questions about the exchanges.
Kilmer last fall showed Womack not only the Port of Tacoma and containers headed to his home district in Arkansas, but Hurricane Ridge at Olympic National Park to learn more about its maintenance backlog in relation to federal funding.
“The park was breathtaking,” Womack recalled.
Other stops included the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Sierra Pacific Industries timber mill in Shelton and a visit to view the Elwha Dam removal project with members of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.
“When you get right down to it, most of who I talked to in Derek’s district, we have a lot more in common than divides us,” Womack said. “We still have people trying to make a living, buy homes and cars and are in pursuit of the American dream, all doing the same thing.”
Kilmer’s trip this month to Arkansas included visiting J.B. Hunt Ventures as sort of a bookend to last year’s Port of Tacoma visit, “the beginning of the U.S. supply chain for many products that are eventually shipped in J.B. Hunt trucks,” according to the tour description.
Kilmer also visited the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Tyson Foods and took a trip to Walmart’s headquarters and one of its distribution centers.
How did Walmart’s distribution center compare to any Amazon site he’d seen in his own home state?
“It was massive. The scale is incomprehensible,” he said.
Similar to the port containers with products headed to Arkansas, Walmart showed Kilmer a shipment coming off the line for Tacoma.
They also visited Crystal Bridges museum in Bentonville, founded in 2005 by Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart’s founder, Sam Walton.
It’s the kind of museum one might never imagine exists only about 2 hours away from Branson, Missouri.
“And that’s kind of the point of these trips,” Kilmer said. “Their point being, ‘We want people to consider this a great place to be.’”
Do the visits help?
Time will tell whether these exchanges make a real difference.
“I don’t represent a major port,” Womack said, “but I do represent a trucking company that goes in and comes out there and a major retailer (Walmart). The connectivity of what I have in my district and what he has, when you connect the dots on how commerce flows and how the country is connected in various ways, to me that was eye opening.”
“Part of what’s wrong,” noted Womack, “is that the jet aircraft has made it easy to get out of here, and you lose the social component to interact off the floor of the House.
“I think with the exchange, you don’t really talk politics. It’s more about things to educate each other about — the things I saw and things he saw in my district. You figure out there’s life outside. It’s all important, and the sum total is what makes our country great.”
Yet, there’s still plenty of division, even for Womack and Kilmer, to navigate.
Womack, who in late September issued a statement sharply critical of the Trump impeachment inquiry, is one of the co-sponsors of a resolution to censure the House Intelligence chairman who has helped lead the inquiry.
Across the aisle, the inquiry is something that Kilmer supports. “The rule of law needs to mean something,” he noted as part of a lengthy statement he issued in late July.
But the bipartisan work continues.
“Part of my approach,” said Kilmer, “is that we are in a divided time, no question. So it’s work to find common ground.
“But, if I’m going to have bill passed and signed, being able to pursue these things in a way to have impact is hard work, but it matters.”
There also are other areas involving the president where Womack and Kilmer agree.
The two both voted to voice opposition of Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria as part of a bipartisan rebuke.
Womack said he would have liked to have spent more time with Kilmer. These trips, he noted, “are just a little bit time compressed.”
“If success is defined in not finding common ground, we’re toast.”