The main problem with attempting to gauge incivility by such a narrow metric as the frequency of words taken down is that it ignores other symptoms that better pinpoint the source and nature of the actual problem. I am often asked whether things are nastier in Congress today than when I was a staffer (1969-1997), and I answer, “yes.” But I carefully explain that does not mean Members are constantly hurling epithets at one another. Most floor speeches today are mild, mannerly and mushy.
I draw a distinction between “incivil,” which I define as hostile and vituperative, and “uncivil,” which I define as lacking in common courtesy. It is the difference between active and passive rudeness. Congress today is mainly guilty of the latter sin. Things have become so polarized between the parties that Members seldom engage each other in verbal exchanges on the floor. Members have their set speeches and tend to talk past one another. If a Member asks another Member to yield for a question, most of the time the Member speaking brusquely refuses for fear of being diverted from his scripted remarks or actually engaging a Member of the other party in a colloquy.
We used to call these exchanges “debates.” Any invitation to do so now is considered an enemy assault. Members might ponder how the common courtesy of yielding can be reciprocal and lead to a better understanding of the issues at hand. Such small building blocks to greater communication across the aisle can go a long way toward healing the deep rifts that now inhibit any form of cooperation or compromise between the parties.
Don Wolfensberger is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a visiting scholar with the Bipartisan Policy Center, and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.
Rep. Bill Cassidy has his blood drawn by Alesha Barbour during a free hepatitis screening in the Rayburn House Office Building hosted by the Congressional Viral Hepatitis Caucus to recognize "National Viral Hepatitis Testing Day."
Roll Call has launched a new feature, Hill Navigator, to advise congressional staffers and would-be staffers on how to manage workplace issues on Capitol Hill. Please send us your questions anything from office etiquette, to handling awkward moments, to what happens when the work life gets too personal. Submissions will be treated anonymously.