Recess Ends With Plea for Civility
With Congress set to address a slew of potentially partisan issues when it reconvenes for regular business this week, a small group of House lawmakers are aiming to maintain civil relations in the chamber.
Reps. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), Dennis Moore (D-Kan.) and Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), members of the Center Aisle Caucus, said their public meeting last week in Overland Park, Kan., was not timed to address upcoming issues, but rather how generally to foster bipartisanship and maintain civility among their Capitol Hill colleagues.
According to the lawmakers, in addition to core issues such as education, prescription drugs and Social Security, the approximately 200 people in attendance at least week’s session raised concerns about the behavior of Members on the House floor during debates. Some attendees suggested that “sometimes [the Members] sound like a bunch of elementary school kids, and you’ve got to set a better example,” Israel said in an interview after the event.
“Most of the suggestions were about improving the tenor of our debate and uplifting the dialogue rather than hurling insults at one and another,” added Israel, who co-founded the 47-member caucus with Rep. Tim Johnson (R-Ill.) earlier this year.
But the trio acknowledged at least one obstacle could make any efforts to overhaul the chamber’s atmosphere difficult: the continued broadcast of House activities on C-SPAN.
“A lot of Members play to the cameras,” Moore said of broadcasts by the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network, which first began filming the House floor in 1979.
“Perhaps if we weren’t playing to the cameras on C-SPAN all the time, and we had deliberate debate … then maybe that would be helpful,” Emerson said in a separate interview Wednesday, adding that she is not advocating the removal of the cameras, but improved debates.
“We believe that there are a lot of challenges this country faces, and we need to sit down in a bipartisan way, and we need to agree to disagree,” Emerson said. “Let’s see if we can take the time to see if we can come up with a solution and not politicize the issue.”
In the coming months, the House lawmakers said they hope to coordinate an event similar to the meeting held at Johnson County Community College last week, but said details of the event will be put on hold until the chamber’s fall schedule is more definitive.
“We really hope this might be a model for other Members to get together and sit down and have discussions,” a Moore spokeswoman said.
In the meantime, Israel and Moore said they intend to encourage their colleagues in the Center Isle Caucus to visit one another’s districts as part of the effort to promote greater amity.
“As different as our districts are, people wake up in our different districts with the same anxieties, and with the same demands that we quit blaming each other and start solving these problems,” Israel said. “Part of our agenda will be devoted to visiting each other’s districts on a bipartisan basis.”
In addition, the group plans to host policy briefings for its members on issues such as Social Security, Israel said, as well as feature guest speakers at its meetings, including Reps. Jim McCrery (R-La.) and Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who are scheduled to discuss their work together on health care issues at an upcoming session.
Despite the lawmakers’ efforts, however, some Congressional experts suggest it may not be enough to maintain civil relations in the House chamber in coming months.
“Under normal circumstances, with a mid-term election approaching and a presidential election starting to begin … parties move toward the center,” noted professor Gary Rose, chairman of Sacred Heart University’s Department of Government and Politics in Fairfield, Conn. “However, we’re in a different era. The new model seems to be to intensify differences and accentuate the negatives of the opposition party, and it’s become a very hostile political environment inside the Beltway.”
“I’m afraid that the days of collegiality are becoming much more rare and scarce than in the past, elections not withstanding,” Rose added.
He went on to note that those schisms are not contained on Capitol Hill.
“The public itself has in many ways become polarized as well; it’s not as if the House of Representatives is polarized while the electorate is not,” Rose said. “The party in the government and the parties in the electorate are in many ways a reflection of each other, they mirror one and another.”
Still, it remained to be seen late last week whether disaster relief efforts for the victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi would prompt the same unity on Capitol Hill that occurred in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“The hurricane will bring people together across party lines, and … in a sense bring the country together around a common disaster, and I think the appropriations for that will go fairly smoothly,” said Robert Smith, a political science professor at San Francisco State University. “And that may have an overflow effect on other kinds of legislation.”