Johnson, Israel Form Civility Caucus

Posted February 11, 2005 at 6:31pm

Fed up with a breakdown of civility in the House, Reps. Tim Johnson (R-Ill.) and Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) this week will launch a new bipartisan caucus to recommend ways to improve relations across the aisle.

On Wednesday the pair will join with former Democratic Speaker Tom Foley (Wash.) and former Republican Minority Leader Bob Michel (Ill.) to announce the formation of the Center Aisle Caucus. Israel and Johnson, who will serve as co-chairmen of the caucus, plan to meet regularly to find ways to improve decorum, a process that will include analyzing and recommending changes to House rules and procedures.

“The one thing this isn’t going to be is a bunch of Members holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya,’” said Israel. “We are going to take a look substantively at things like the rules that make people feel disenfranchised or disempowered. We want to look at fostering fairer debate.”

Israel said he and Johnson decided to create the caucus after a series of conversations in the Members’ gym. The two shared the feeling that even in the most competitive of environments, Members can and should get along, he said.

“If we can have healthy respect and competition in the gym, why can’t we have healthy respect and competition on the floor?” Israel asked.

Johnson said the two lawmakers first became acquainted when they were elected together in 2000, and he echoed Israel’s assertion that the idea was hatched during their time in the gym.

“We both have felt that the level of animosity and rancor and bickering … has exponentially increased and we mutually agreed that we needed to do something about it,” the Illinois lawmaker said.

Johnson pointed out that “Steve and I don’t agree on everything,” but expressed hope that having ideological diversity would make the group stronger.

The Center Aisle Caucus will promote the idea that Members have and should recognize their differences, but those disagreements don’t have to devolve into “name calling” and “impugning people’s motives,” Israel said.

Beyond meeting regularly to talk about improving House comity and reviewing the rules, the caucus also will give awards to Members who show deference to one another.

The mission of the new caucus appears to mirror that of the now defunct bipartisan retreat, created by then-Rep. David Skaggs (D-Colo.) and designed to bolster trust and respect between Democrats and Republicans. Israel and Johnson consulted Skaggs about their new organization, and invited him to Wednesday’s kickoff.

Israel acknowledged the new Caucus faces an uphill battle promoting change, but believes it will organize enough Members to have influence: “We’re not naïve about this. We know this is going to be hard.”

The new co-chairmen say they expect a large number of Members to join their group, and don’t believe that the ratio of minority Democrats to majority Republicans will be off balance. Democrats have recently complained about the GOP’s handling of the House, and pushed for legislation and rules changes seeking fairer treatment.

“I think there are Members on both sides of the aisle that understand that we can stand our ground on core issues without throwing chairs at each other and smearing each other and questioning who is a better American,” Israel said. “I think both parties would see this as an opportunity to advance the debate and get things done.”

Johnson agreed, suggesting that lawmakers’ constituents would appreciate their efforts at civility.

“I’m convinced, and so is Steve, that the people of the United States are really tired of seeing both parties raise the tone to a place where the anger and the incivility sometimes outweigh good policymaking,” Johnson said.