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Ding-Dong Bell, Let's Go Poison the Well | Procedural Politics

Republicans and Democrats called on Gingrich to move one-minute speeches in 1996 amid increasing partisan acrimony. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Every year I take a group of Wilson Center fellows to Capitol Hill where we observe an hour of House proceedings from the gallery.  Some of the fellows, especially those from other countries, are both fascinated and perplexed by the opening ceremonies — the prayer, the pledge, the welcoming of a guest chaplain, followed by a series of one-minute speeches by members on anything they want to talk about.    I tell the fellows this opening round of mini-speeches has been dubbed by someone, “the one-minute happy hour” because it is such an eclectic slice of Americana, from praising the hometown football team on winning the state championship, to commending a 100-year-old couple from the district on their 80th wedding anniversary, to blasting the opposition party.   In the latter case, I inform the group that priority seating in the front row of the chamber goes to two groups of ringers on either side of the aisle dividing the parties. They lead off with their scripted, political messages, with recognition alternating between the parties. The Republicans call their speakers “The Theme Team,” and Democrats call theirs “The Message Group.”  The remarks are usually a mix of the positive and negative, from touting the party’s programs and accomplishments to criticizing the opposition party’s irresponsible policies. To a visitor in the gallery it might appear that the bells convening the day’s session have triggered a partisan Pavlovian response.  In 1996,  one-minutes got so nasty that a bipartisan group of 50 members wrote to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, urging him to move one-minutes to the end of the day because the partisan punch lines were poisoning the well of the House before the day’s legislative business even began.   It reminded me of the nursery rhyme, “Pussy’s in the Well,” but with a twist: “Ding-dong bell, let’s go poison the well.” The proposal was one of the options considered at the first bipartisan House civility retreat in Hershey, Pa., in 1997.  It got a fair hearing from the Rules Committee, but went nowhere.   Parties like the idea of hitting their C-SPAN audiences early in the day with their catchy messages before eyes glaze over during dense amendment debates. I have no problem with the up-front placement of this soapbox derby.   Most House members are not in the chamber and pay no attention to it.   They are vaguely aware it exists as a kind of partisan purging ritual akin to brushing your teeth. Only in this case it’s to prevent the decay of partisan principles.   Thus fortified, members can plunge into legislative debates knowing they have at least symbolically warded off Mr. Truth Decay. For the sake of balance and practical relevance, I propose the formation of informal, bipartisan tag-teams of members to speak in tandem during one-minutes about their initiatives in cooperative problem solving. They might call attention to bipartisan sponsorship of bills or amendments, the formation of informal member caucuses to address specific problems, or exchanges of visits to each other’s districts to educate themselves and their constituents on matters of mutual concern. Such bipartisan “partnership” efforts were another of the suggestions coming out of the first Hershey retreat. Today, such across-the-aisle partnering is occurring with increasing frequency, though it hasn’t gotten much play outside the Beltway.   A periodic public airing and sharing of these activities during one-minute speeches can help remind us that politics is more than just hyper-partisan, hyper-venting. We can still be touched by what Lincoln called, “the better angels of our nature” to “swell the chorus of the Union.”   Yes, incremental change can be ponderously slow in producing perceptible results.  But, like any monument to the past that reminds of what we can achieve, it is built one brick at a time.   America is still that monument to the past pointing to the future, and it is still very much a work in progress.   Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.