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Why can't Congress master the simple art of multi-tasking?

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FILE -- Sept. 1, 2013: The dome of the U.S. Capitol is seen in Washington.AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

It’s almost surreal to imagine a time when a government so sharply divided between Republicans and Democrats could still get things done in Washington.

Right now Americans see their elected officials lunging from one crisis to the next without ever seeming to accomplish much of anything.

It’s true that political leaders are in a difficult time. They face a deteriorating conflict in Syria, a potential government shutdown over the budget, entitlements in desperate need of reform and finding solutions for poor economic conditions. Taken all together, it makes for a tough workload.

The Washington we see today doesn’t need to be this way.

But as hard as it might be to believe, it isn’t anything that we haven’t seen before.

Governing has always been hard.

I recently left Congress after 18 years. Throughout that time I experienced the ebbs and flows of a government divided between Republicans and Democrats.

I look back now on the period between 1995 and 2000 as perhaps the most similar to Washington today, when a Republican House was paired with a Democratic president.

We faced conflicts in difficult areas of the world, government shutdowns, entitlement programs in need of repair and an uncertain economy.

The difference between then and now is that political leaders knew when to hold them, when to fold them and when to cut a deal. Together we reached agreements on how to create a more robust economy by cutting taxes, reforming welfare and balancing the budget.

These accomplishments were reached through the consensus of two political polar opposites –Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Democratic President Bill Clinton – who were considered extreme partisans by many.

Gingrich used his partisan political acumen to lead House Republicans to their first majority status in 40 years. 

Clinton used his deft political skills to win reelection in 1996 after a difficult first four years in office, and then went on to lead Democrats to electoral success in 1998 even under the dark cloud of impeachment.

Yes, the government did shut down in 1995, and yes, Congress impeached Clinton, but Republicans and Democrats in Washington found a way to overcome their political differences and govern. Talk about multitasking!

It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t perfect, but Congress and the president found solutions to our nation’s problems without succumbing to political gridlock.

The Washington we see today doesn’t need to be this way. Congress and the White House can and should reach a grand bargain on spending restraint, tax reform, entitlement modernization and a path to a balanced budget.

Just think about how the American people would respond if the grand bargain that everyone knows needs to happen actually happened. It certainly wouldn’t be perfect, but it would provide certainty to an economy that is struggling. It would enable employers to focus on growing their business and creating job opportunities, and not trying to anticipate how Washington will impact their viability.

Washington’s leaders were capable of multitasking then. They can multi-task now. And Americans should demand that they do so.

I hope that Republican House Speaker John Boehner, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Obama can leverage their political abilities to reach a consensus on the issues of our time. They all share the responsibilities of leadership, to their political parties and to the American people.

Over the coming days and weeks they will be given the opportunity to maintain their political differences and still govern in a way that leads to a more prosperous America.

It happened before, and it can happen again.

Republican Pete Hoekstra represented Michigan's 2nd congressional district from 1993 to 2011 in the House of Representatives. He is the former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.