Incivility Crisis

Posted July 22, 2003 at 5:59pm

By happenstance, The Washington Post on Saturday played its story on the ugly fracas at the Ways and Means Committee adjacent to a story headlined, ‘Triple Suicide Forces Japanese To Face Menace Of Loan Sharks.” It made us wonder: What will it take to force the House of Representatives to face up to its incivility crisis? Somebody dying?

Embarrassment and chagrin clearly will not do it. Here we have the spectacle of the chairman of one of the House’s most powerful committees, Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), imperiously calling the Capitol Police to evict colleagues from public property. And we have a senior Democrat on that committee, Rep. Pete Stark (Calif.), hurling epithets at the chairman and taunting another Member. And instead of everyone apologizing and vowing never to do it again, Democrats and Republicans are still blaming each other for the uproar.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has chided both sides for ‘third-grade behavior” and counseled that ‘people ought to grow up,” but his explanation of the affair on ‘Fox News Sunday” gave us the impression that he holds Democrats more responsible for the conflict than Thomas. Moreover, Hastert failed to acknowledge the underlying cause of Democratic discontent: persistent refusal on the part of Republicans to allow Democrats any role in shaping legislation and contemptuous dismissal of their complaints about mistreatment.

As Hastert described it, ‘There was a walkout by the Democrats. They went into this library. They invited the press in. They slowed down the process.”

Democrats maintain they did so because a new version of the bipartisan Portman-Cardin pension bill was sprung on them late Thursday night, leaving them little time to consider it. Republicans counter that minority staffers were aware of the basic changes in the measure beforehand. But this would not be the first time — or the second or third — that Thomas had presented Democrats with a chairman’s mark that Democrats had little time to consider.

When the Democrats retired to the library, they left behind as their watchdog the notoriously bombastic Stark, who promptly got into a shouting match with Thomas and Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.). Thomas then called the police to evict the other Democrats. And Democrats have been complaining ever since that — as buttons they’ve distributed read — ‘The House is Now a Police State.”

On Tuesday, Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) met with Ways and Means Republicans to find a graceful way to dampen down the controversy. Perhaps there will be an apology and more decorous reconsideration of the pension bill. But there’s no indication that Republicans are considering wider measures to make the House more civil. Democrats, meanwhile, need to tone down their childish attacks that undermine legitimate points about the fairness of the chamber. After all, this is far from the first time that Stark has acted in such an intemperate manner.