John Luft, program manager of the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program, and Kyle Stone, wildlife biologist for the Division of Wildlife Resources, speaks with Rep. Blake Moore and Rep. Jimmy Panetta during a tour of the Great Salt Lake in Willard on Monday, March 18, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News
John Luft, program manager of the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program, and Kyle Stone, wildlife biologist for the Division of Wildlife Resources, speaks with Rep. Blake Moore and Rep. Jimmy Panetta during a tour of the Great Salt Lake in Willard on Monday, March 18, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

The 2 congressmen visited Willard Bay aboard an airboat after being paired up in an effort to find solutions across political parties

Bobbing up and down on the otherworldly surface of the Great Salt Lake, two lawmakers from opposing political planets found themselves in frequent agreement.

Utah Republican Rep. Blake Moore and California Democrat Jimmy Panetta nodded in unison as they were schooled in the intricacies of the brine shrimp egg industry aboard a Department of Natural Resources airboat on Willard Bay.

Both acknowledged the importance of forgoing partisan point scoring to achieve wins in water and wildlife conservation. “This doesn’t necessarily cut a political line,” Moore said, because everyone recognizes if a solution isn’t found Americans will be left with “dusty lakes” — and that’s not a winning outcome for anyone.

But Congress struggles to collaborate on even the most obvious problems, whether it be drought, national defense, or the debt, Panetta said, because so many of its members lack one thing.

“This is all about trust,” he said. “That’s the key ingredient to get stuff done in the United States Congress.”

Building relationships between lawmakers is the mission of the program that brought Moore and Panetta together for a daylong outing on Monday that included a tour of Welfare Square, a visit to Hill Air Force Base and a meeting with Moore’s debt and deficit task force.

Since 2018, the Bipartisan Policy Center has paired up a handful of lawmakers each year to cross the aisle, and the country, to gain greater understanding of the common ground beneath their feet as Americans. In 2021, former Utah Rep. Chris Stewart took Hawaii Rep. Ed Case on a hike up Angels Landing in Zion National Park as part of the program.

The Washington, D.C.,-based think tank approached Moore last year as a lawmaker they thought was willing to work with members of the other party on one of the biggest threats facing the country: a massive and rapidly growing debt. Panetta also fit the bill.

“We are pretty intentional about how we make these pairings,” said Jonathan Perman, the founder and co-director of the American Congressional Exchange. “We’re kind of like matchmakers.”

Both Moore and Panetta have championed federal debt and deficit reduction as colleagues on the House Budget Committee, recently voting together to create a bipartisan debt commission. But both will tell you that aside from being the two most beautiful areas in the country, their districts are political polar opposites.

Panetta’s 19th District along the California coast is as blue as Moore’s northern Utah 1st District is red. President Joe Biden won the former by almost 50 percentage points in 2020 and former President Donald Trump won the latter by over 30 percentage points.

For Panetta, the Democratic Party holds a family connection as well. His political heritage includes a father, Leon Panetta, who served as CIA director and Secretary of Defense under President Barack Obama and Chief of Staff to President Bill Clinton.

But since first getting elected in 2016, he has gone out of his way to pave bipartisan paths, becoming the first member of Congress to complete the Bipartisan Policy Center’s exchange program twice.

“Understanding the differences of each other’s districts obviously creates that empathy for each other even though we’re in different parties,” Panetta said.

Sometimes increased empathy can even result in the adoption of viewpoints held by the “other side.” Following a meeting with Moore’s debt task force, composed of industry leaders from across the 1st Congressional District, Panetta spoke of the urgent need to get the nation’s spending under control.

“If we let the debt and deficit grow it only will continue to worsen when it comes to affecting people’s lives. And therefore we need to be doing something sooner and not later,” Panetta said.

The first step has already been taken, according to Moore and Panetta. In January, the 40-member House Budget Committee passed the Fiscal Commission Act to create a bipartisan debt commission of lawmakers and business leaders to propose actionable policies to immediately begin reducing government spending, increasing tax revenue and bringing the nation’s debt-to-GDP back down to earth.

Panetta was one of only three Democrats to support the measure, for which he was attacked by those on his left for wanting to reform entitlement programs, he said. This is why, in a political environment where negotiations on hot-button issues are quickly shot down, the bill includes a requirement that whatever proposals are presented by the committee must receive an up-or-down floor vote in the House.

“I’m sorry that we have to say that we need something to force us to do that right, but that’s what it comes to when it’s such a politically sensitive thing like potential spending cuts or our taxes,” Panetta said.

Measures that force lawmakers to vote on difficult questions have become necessary because the “groups that try to influence Congress try to use scare tactics,” Moore said, to dissuade members of Congress from straying from the party line.

But straying from the traditional party line is exactly what it will take to beginning reforming the “70%” of mandatory federal spending that drives national deficits.

“We have got a tough job to do and we have to be adults back there to deal with these issues,” Moore said. “Everybody’s going to have their opinion, but we know this is a problem and we’ve got to enact some solutions on this.”

Deseret News Reporter
Brigham L. Tomco is a staff writer on the politics team covering Utah’s congressional delegation, governor and state legislature.

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