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Incivility Is Symptom of Larger Problem on Capitol Hill

The confluence of Rep. Ray LaHood’s (R-Ill.) July retirement announcement and a Drake University symposium last month on “civility, society and politics” caused me to rethink a subject I hadn’t considered in some time.

[IMGCAP(1)]LaHood was the lead Republican organizer of the bipartisan House civility retreats for Members and their families in 1997, 1999 and 2001, with Democratic Reps. David Skaggs (Colo.), Tom Sawyer (Ohio) and Charlie Stenholm (Texas), respectively.

House Democrats understandably were skeptical that being nice one weekend every two years would transform the House into a fountain overflowing with goodwill. And their suspicions were borne out when things did not improve measurably after the first retreat and the minority continued to get the short end of the procedural fairness stick. If anything, things got worse — especially during the Clinton impeachment imbroglio.

Not surprisingly, the situation in the House caught up with Members at their second retreat in Hershey, Pa., notwithstanding the abundance of chocolate kisses as symbolic incentives to make sweetness and nice. Democrats pressed Republicans for concessions on greater procedural fairness in committee and floor proceedings. Channels were suddenly switched from “A Family Affair” to “Partisan Family Feud.”

To his credit, LaHood worked with his Democratic counterparts after the second retreat to distill the recommendations for improving interparty relations and present them to the bipartisan leadership for review and response. That was the last anyone heard of the recommendations and any prospect for a civility accord.

It is little wonder, then, that the third retreat at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia drew only one-third of the House membership. Afterward, Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) declared he would never attend another one because “they have yet to produce any results, so there’s no point in being there.”

When Members were polled two years ago about interest in participating in another retreat, the response was decidedly negative. Members apparently no longer considered themselves retreatable. LaHood called it “one of the biggest disappointments of my career.”

The idea behind the retreats seemed reasonable enough. If Members got to know each other as people, rather than as enemy combatants, they would get along better. Personal relationships are more likely to breed civility than contempt. Civility, after all, is nothing more than the respectful way people interact with one another. It is, however, the key to building mutual trust and reciprocity — two especially important values in an institution dependent on trading favors and achieving compromise.

Unfortunately, in today’s harsh political environment, the idea is an elusive, airy ideal — far removed from hard-rock partisan realities on the ground. And that is why it is unrealistic to expect much improvement in the civil climate on Capitol Hill any time soon.

As discussed at the Drake symposium, in which I participated, incivility is less a product of ideological differences than it is of the fierce struggle for majority power that will continue so long as neither party is clearly dominant. Incivility is one symptom of this power struggle, especially after a switch in party control. The old majority still is in denial and angry about losing the perks of power; and the new majority is anxious to ram its agenda through, even if it means resorting to the same abusive procedural tactics it complained of when in the minority. Only a dominant majority will find the magnanimity to be fair and decent to the minority — and even that may take time.

One of the Drake students expressed bemusement at my description of the standards, procedures and terms of civility found in House rules and precedents — of “words being taken down” and “stricken from the Record,” and of Members being barred from speaking for the remainder of the day for using “unparliamentary language” by “engaging in personalities.” As the student put it, these are minor things that are bound to happen when people are passionate about an issue and are engaging each other in a lively exchange of views.

I had to confess it all did seem a bit piddling when the House is locked in great debates over war and peace to halt the proceedings to vote on striking from the Congressional Record words like “liar,” “cheater” or “hypocrite.” Yet, when the first House adopted these rules of “decorum and debate” in 1789, it felt strongly about the need to maintain order to avoid having debates regularly descend into anarchic shouting matches and fistfights.

As our history shows, the rules alone did not prevent sporadic outbreaks of spitting, hitting, caning, maiming and even duels. But they did provide a way for Congress to restore order and punish the offending parties.

The students were more interested in why Congress perennially avoids tackling such tough issues as deficits, illegal immigration, entitlement financing and global warming. To paraphrase one discussant, “You are more interested in maintaining civility, which means protecting the status quo, than you are in showing courage, which means taking on major issues and shaking things up, despite the political consequences.”

This brings us back to our underlying point: The warfare in Congress is less about ideological or policy differences than it is about gaining or retaining majority power; and that entails offending the least number of voters. Until the people forcefully demand answers and solutions, the policy process will remain ensnared in the locked horns of two clashing stags.

Shortly after announcing his retirement, LaHood told The Washington Post that the tone in Congress today “is very negative and disheartening” and “the decibel level is the highest I’ve heard in politics.” The House will greatly miss Ray LaHood and other departing institution-minded Members who tried to make it otherwise.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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