On Links As In Life, D.C. Bipartisan Relations Are Deep In The Rough

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Hill staffers and PGA professionals mingle Wednesday at this year's National Golf Day event on Capitol Hill, which included an annual Democrats versus Republicans putting challenge. (NPR)
Hill staffers and PGA professionals mingle Wednesday at this year's National Golf Day event on Capitol Hill, which included an annual Democrats versus Republicans putting challenge. (NPR)

Earlier this week, members of Congress and their staffs were greeted by a makeshift golf expo set up on the Rayburn House Office Building.

The event included golf shot simulators, certified golf instructors and a putting challenge between Democrats and Republicans. It was all part of National Golf Day, an annual event organized by the industry that promotes the economic and health benefits of the sport.

American politicians have had an affinity with golf dating back at least as far as William Howard Taft, the first-known president to hit the links. Since then, Democrats and Republicans alike have enjoyed game. But as hyperpartisan politics have become more commonplace in Washington, bipartisan golf outings have disappeared like a shanked tee shot into a water hazard

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the third ranking Democrat in House leadership, said that when he first came to Washington in the early 1990s, golf was something political rivals did together regularly.

"I really learned bipartisanship up here on the golf course, and it allowed me to develop relationships across the aisle. And sometimes I'd be the only Democrat there — often the only African-American — but it taught me a lot. And I hope the experience taught some of them a lot," he said.

South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn talks with PGA professional Bob Dolan Jr. at the National Golf Day event on Capitol Hill. Clyburn is an avid golfer, and the Democrat says that earlier on in his career, he learned a lot about bipartisanship on the golf course.
South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn talks with PGA professional Bob Dolan Jr. at the National Golf Day event on Capitol Hill. Clyburn is an avid golfer, and the Democrat says that earlier on in his career, he learned a lot about bipartisanship on the golf course.

Clyburn, who took part in the event's putting challenge, admits that as years have passed, golf has stopped being used to chip away at bipartisan divides.

One needs to look no further than the closely watched relationship between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner. Shortly after Republicans regained control of the House following the 2010 midterm elections, many wondered if the two would get together for a round of golf to iron out their differences.

It finally happened in June 2011. According to reports at the time, it was a cordial outing — Boehner clapped when the President sank a putt, and Obama put his hand on Boehner's shoulder as they were exiting a green.

But a month after that golf outing, the negotiations between the two on raising the nation's debt ceiling collapsed.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, is an avid golfer, and still has a lot of power in his swing for an 81-year-old. Like Clyburn, he believes the decline in across-the-aisle golf outings has led to missed opportunities.

President Obama points to Vice President Biden's putt as they and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, golf at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., in June 2011.
President Obama points to Vice President Biden's putt as they and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, golf at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., in June 2011.

"It's still one of the best ways to communicate with one another and solve a problem — on the golf course," Young said.

Young admits there are still some bipartisan outings, but far fewer than there used to be. He said one reason is that members don't stick around Washington on weekends, when Congress isn't in session.

Former Republican Rep. Michael Oxley, who represented Ohio's 4th Congressional District for a quarter-century, said he played golf with many Democrats before his retirement in 2007, including former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill.

"When I ran for Congress, of course, Tip was the boogeyman among Republicans," Oxley said.

Oxley said the two golfed together and hit it off. He even remembers O'Neill's odd device at the handle end of his putter — a suction cup, so O'Neill didn't have to bend down to pick his ball up out of the hole. He admits there wasn't a whole lot of good golf played, but says it wasn't about that — it was about laying the groundwork for a good working relationship.

A staffer participates in the annual Democrats vs. Republicans putting challenge.
A staffer participates in the annual Democrats vs. Republicans putting challenge.

"I can't remember one time when I've cut a deal specifically on a specific piece of legislation on the golf course, because it's just generally frowned upon," Oxley said. "But the prearranged relationship that you've developed over time on a golf course gives you that avenue to make deals at a later date."

Any chance current members of Congress can learn something from their predecessors?

Rep. Clyburn will golf in Hilton Head, S.C., this weekend, and his trip suggests the lack of links bipartisanship will persist a bit longer: The list of House colleagues who will join him is all Democrats.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The golf industry descended on Capitol Hill this week for a National Golf Day. The goal - to promote the health and economic benefits of the sport. Golf is loved by Democrats and Republicans alike. But much like a tee shot in a water hazard, the era of bipartisan golf outings may have disappeared. NPR's Brakkton Booker has this report.

BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn is standing on a putting green inside the Rayburn Office Building.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLF GAME)

CONGRESSMAN JAMES CLYBURN: OK, so I'm ready.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yes, you're ready for the...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You're ready. You're ready.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: OK, so we're going for the middle.

CLYBURN: I know what not to do now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is for the contest now.

BOOKER: He's playing in a friendly competition of Democrats versus Republicans. His challenge - to sink a 20-foot putt.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLF GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Short.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Short.

CLYBURN: We're stopped.

BOOKER: And, oh yeah, the putt has to pass through a four-foot-tall replica of the Washington Monument. There's a cut-out at the bottom barely big enough for the ball to roll through. After a few mulligans, he finally got one to drop.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLF GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: There you go. That a boy.

CLYBURN: I'm going to quit while I'm ahead.

BOOKER: Clyburn, the number-three Democrat in House leadership, remembers when a round of golf was often a bipartisan exercise.

CLYBURN: And it allowed me to develop relationships across the aisle. And sometimes I'd be the only Democrat there, often the only African-American. But it taught me a lot, and I hope the experience taught some of them a lot.

BOOKER: But Clyburn admits, over the years, golf stopped being used to chip away at bipartisan issues - take, for instance, Boehner and President Obama. Both love golf. They even stood together at a White House ceremony last year honoring the golfers of the U.S. Presidents Cup team.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I am joined by two of my favorite golf partners - the vice president of the United States, Joe Biden, and the speaker of the House, John Boehner. In each instance they have to give me strokes.

BOOKER: Boehner, one of Obama's favorite golfers? We may need to check with a rules official on that one. The two did play together once back in June of 2011. It was reportedly a friendly round - applause for a putt, a hand on a shoulder. But a month after that round, negotiations over the debt ceiling broke down. Here is Speaker Boehner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CONGRESSMAN JOHN BOEHNER: President Obama came to Congress in January and requested business as usual. He had another routine increase in the national debt. But we in the House said, not so fast.

BOOKER: Back on Capitol Hill, at the National Golf Day festivities, Alaska Congressman Don Young steps up to get his swing evaluated. Even in a jacket and tie...

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLF GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Beautiful.

CONGRESSMAN DON YOUNG: How's that? You get that?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I'm impressed.

YOUNG: Thank you, buddy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Very good.

BOOKER: At 81, Republican Don Young still hits with power and still believes golf can slice away at bipartisan differences.

YOUNG: It's still one of the best ways to communicate with one another to solve a problem - on the golf course.

BOOKER: But Young regrets fewer and fewer members hit the course together. One reason, he says, they no longer stay in Washington on the weekends. Michael Oxley is a former Republican congressman who represented Ohio for a quarter century. He says he golfed with many Democrats over that time, including former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill.

MICHAEL OXLEY: When I ran for Congress 'course Tip was the boogeyman among Republicans.

BOOKER: Oxley golfed with O'Neill, and he says it laid the groundwork for a working relationship.

OXLEY: I can't remember one time when I've cut a deal specifically on a specific piece of legislation on the golf course. But the prearranged relationship that you've developed over time on a golf course gives you that avenue to make deals at a later date.

BOOKER: This weekend, representative Jim Clyburn will golf in Hilton Head, S.C. When he named the House colleagues who will join him, the list was all Democrats. Brakkton Booker, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.