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Scholar urges ‘great’ debates to improve Hill discourse

Regular Oxford-style debates on the House floor beat speeches before an empty chamber, Ornstein says

President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address in the House chamber on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address in the House chamber on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call)

With Congress mired in the partisanship of impeachment and the 2020 elections, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress continued its countereffort Wednesday, seeking ways to boost productive deliberations on Capitol Hill.

If the panel takes the advice of one congressional scholar, then regular Oxford-style debates may make their way to the House floor one day.

Norm Ornstein, a co-author of “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism,” urged the panel to include among its recommendations to the full chamber a series of Great American Debates, perhaps even weekly, to showcase the serious policy of the nation.

He wasn’t talking about the typical speeches that members deliver in an oftentimes empty chamber where the audience is a camera. Ornstein’s idea is to have two teams of two lawmakers, sometimes bipartisan duos, engage in actual debates where they listen to one another and respond.

A series of speeches with no back and forth responses, as happens in Congress now, he noted, “that’s not debate.”

“If you’re grappling with a larger issue and you can talk about the nuances and you can argue back and forth, but in a civil fashion, I think it will change the tenor of the place,” Ornstein told the panel. 

The select committee began last year as a one-year project to offer recommendations to update Congress for the modern era, but House leaders extended its charter through the end of this year.  The panel has already offered recommendations to encourage bipartisan collaboration, such as joint retreats.

“The breakdown we often see in Congress can be traced back to how we listen, learn and communicate with each other,” the panel’s chairman, Derek Kilmer, a Washington Democrat, and vice chairman Tom Graves, a Georgia Republican, said in a joint statement. “It’s up to us to advocate for bipartisan solutions and the conversation today helped identify more areas for reform. ”

Another congressional scholar, Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director emerita of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, also endorsed some of the committee’s own practices — such as mixing up the seat chart so that Democrats and Republicans sit next to each other, not in same-party clusters. She said such seemingly minor changes have led to more bipartisan legislation in state legislatures like Maine.

She also endorsed Ornstein’s idea of debates and said lawmakers should receive training during their orientation.

Still, she cautioned that lawmakers needed to find behind-the-scenes opportunities to foster more bipartisan collaboration and noted one downside of televised congressional proceedings.

“The original intention around the cameras was to create transparency and make … more visible to the American public what’s happening here, and yet the very presence of the cameras has changed the behavior in a way, that what Americans are seeing only further feeds their own cynicism and distrust of what’s happening in the halls of Congress,” Lukensmeyer said.

“We’re not going to turn off the C-SPAN cameras,” Ornstein said, adding that lawmakers should use them “to the best advantage,” such as with his Great American Debates idea. He added, however, that closed-door roundtable discussions could offer opportunities for lawmakers to huddle with outside experts in an attempt to broker deals outside the public eye.

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