'Game Recognizes Game': A Bipartisan Bond In The Age Of Impeachment

Sep 27, 2019
Originally published on September 27, 2019 7:03 pm

Updated at 2:15 p.m. ET

House lawmakers Hakeem Jeffries and Doug Collins couldn't be more different.

Jeffries is a Democrat and an avid hip-hop devotee, while Collins is a Republican who favors country music. Jeffries hails from a largely urban New York district, and Collins represents a largely rural pocket much farther south in Georgia.

Yet, somehow this duo found common ground this past year to pass a major policy initiative. And now one of the oldest schools in the country will award them with its Prize for Civility in Public Life.

They sat down with NPR exclusively Thursday, a day before Allegheny College awards them the joint prize at the National Press Club in Washington.

"Game recognizes game," Collins says, signaling Jeffries in a hip-hop reference from his Capitol Hill office. "This man right here. You want to ... partner with him."

Jeffries returns the favor.

"Although I appreciate Doug Collins quoting ... one of the philosophical underpinnings of hip-hop — which is game recognizes game," Jeffries says between Collins' laughs, it "shows you how much game Doug Collins has at the end of the day."

As they sit recounting their bipartisan bond, it's a brief respite from the controversy broiling just outside Collins' office door.

Moments earlier, a whistleblower complaint against President Trump had been released detailing concerns that the White House attempted to lock down transcripts of calls with the president of Ukraine and other foreign officials. That release was followed by hours-long committee testimony of Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence.

Collins and Jeffries both sit on the House Judiciary Committee, ground zero for an ongoing impeachment inquiry into Trump and on opposite sides of a bitter, partisan fight. Yet, they were able to score a major legislative win this year.

Their first was a bill to protect songwriters in 2013 — and later the two even posted a joint Spotify list of their favorite songs. However, their much tougher work collaboration came with criminal justice reform signed into law in December that helped shorten sentences for some inmates.

Tim Reeves serves as a member for Allegheny College's board of trustees.
Mhari Shaw / NPR

Jeffries and Collins say the prize for that work is a major honor.

"It's reflective of the fact that we were able to come together, which meant leadership from Doug Collins, to get things done and make a difference in the lives of the American people in both criminal justice reform and as it relates to the Music Modernization Act," Jeffries said. "And I was proud to partner with him in that regard."

Allegheny College President Hilary Link says Jeffries and Collins exemplify something in dire need today: civility.

"They come from drastically different backgrounds, geographic backgrounds, racial backgrounds, political backgrounds and socioeconomic backgrounds. And they know that they stand at very opposite sides of the political spectrum from each other," she said. "But they also know that by finding some form of commonality — whether that's their faith, their taste in music or an appreciation of what the other side for lack of a better term is trying to do — they know that through finding some form of commonality they can overcome those differences to really make a difference for our political landscape and really for the country as a whole."

She says her school found a dramatic decline in students' interests to serve in public life in recent years. Those same students would rather volunteer at a shelter than work in city hall.

And that public service, and corresponding need for civility, must continue to be spotlighted. It is the ninth year the school will issue the award.

"I think what we're trying to do with the civility prize is really draw attention to people who are not falling prey to the incivility and the demonization," Link said, "so that we can present models to our students at Allegheny as well as to anyone else that it is possible to do this and to solve really big issues working with someone with whom you ... may not agree at all."

Collins and Jeffries will follow in the footsteps of previous recipients such as the the late Sen. John McCain and former Vice President Joe Biden, as well as Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Antonin Scalia.

They met after joining the same freshman class of House lawmakers in 2013 and serving on the judiciary committee. Jeffries remembers it was Collins who reached out to work together.

And it's that bond that makes this duo think their bipartisan relationship can survive even a bitter, partisan fight over impeachment.

"We are obviously in a very intense hyperpartisan era. But that's not unlike previous moments in American history where there were intense disagreements," Jeffries said. And "the resiliency and the power of American exceptionalism has always gotten us through prior instances of intense internal conflict. And so I'm confident that the same will happen as we move forward."

Collins agrees.

"If I was no longer serving tomorrow ... the ability that we've had to work together, to get this prize together," he said, "is just one of the pinnacles of my time in public service."

: 9/27/19

A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as Ginsberg.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

When you look around Washington, D.C., right now, civility may not be the first word that you think of. So it's an interesting time for two members of Congress to receive this high-profile award for their efforts at finding common ground. Here's NPR's congressional reporter Claudia Grisales.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Democrat Hakeem Jeffries is a hip-hop fan from Brooklyn, and Republican Doug Collins of rural Georgia favors country music. Collins has adopted his colleagues' favorite musical reference to explain their mutual respect.

DOUG COLLINS: Game recognizes game. This man right here, you want to be - you want to partner with him.

GRISALES: And Jeffries returns the favor.

HAKEEM JEFFRIES: Although I appreciate Doug Collins quoting, you know, one of the philosophical underpinnings of hip-hop, which is game recognizes game, which shows you how much game Doug Collins has at the end of the day.

GRISALES: They easily share laughs, but their business couldn't be more serious. They sit on the House Judiciary Committee, ground zero for a Trump impeachment inquiry. They gathered in Collins' Capitol Hill office for an early celebration of sorts. They'll receive a joint civility prize from Pennsylvania's Allegheny College this morning. They'll follow in the footsteps of national political figures like the late Senator John McCain and former Vice President Joe Biden and Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Antonin Scalia. Jeffries and Collins joined the same freshman class of House lawmakers in 2013 and met on the Judiciary panel. And when most people think Democrats and Republicans don't even talk, Jeffries remembers it was Collins who reached out to work together.

JEFFRIES: The fact that we can find common ground captures the attention and the imagination of people both inside the Beltway and outside.

GRISALES: They scored their first legislative win on a bill to protect musicians, but their much tougher work collaboration came with criminal justice reform. Their effort led to a new law shortening sentences for some inmates. Collins gets emotional when he thinks about Matthew Charles, a former drug dealer who was one of the first impacted by the changes after serving more than 20 years in prison.

COLLINS: I cried when Matthew Charles came. And the bill that we did, this man's life is different.

JEFFRIES: Right.

COLLINS: That's what makes this special. That's passionate involvement, not dispassionate politics.

GRISALES: Jeffries nods in agreement and says even though as Trump investigations are dominating Capitol Hill, there's more work they can do together on policy issues that earned them this award.

JEFFRIES: The resiliency and the power of American exceptionalism has always gotten us through prior instances of intense internal conflict, and so I'm confident that the same will happen as we move forward.

GRISALES: They can see the impeachment probe has the potential to tear Congress apart, but they say their bipartisan bond is a testament to how civility can survive in Washington.

Claudia Grisales, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.