Congress Depends on Civility

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Tuesday, September 14, 2004
When he was just a 16-year-old schoolboy, George Washington sat down and copied out 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior,” based on a 16th -century set of French maxims. Many of these had to do with simple manners — “Cleanse not your teeth with the tablecloth, napkin, fork or knife,” reads Rule 100 — but others formed a guide to modest and appropriate behavior in public that our first President followed the rest of his life. 

There are times when I find myself wishing that members of Congress today adopted the approach of that particular 16-year-old. Civil behavior hasn’t disappeared from Capitol Hill, but it is far less in evidence than it once was. We are all the poorer as a result. 

Why should the behavior of a relative handful of people affect the rest of us so thoroughly? To understand this, let’s start with what I mean by “civility.” Simply put, it means that legislators respect the rights and dignity of others. It does not mean that they need to agree with one another — far from it. Rather, treating one another civilly is how people who don’t agree still manage to weigh issues carefully and find common ground. This is an enormously diverse country, with many different interests at the table in any given argument, and we are well served by the vigorous debate that results. But even if our political leaders are not all going to become friends, we can certainly expect them to listen to one another, to respect each other, and to acknowledge that in a nation as divided as we are politically, good governance entails finding solutions that all can live with. 

All of this is hard to do these days. For one thing, members of Congress don’t know one another as well as they once did — their schedules are so crowded that often they meet only in committee or on the floor in debate, situations that by their nature tend to be confrontational. Modern electioneering being what it is, members also spend much of their non-legislative time either raising money or back in their districts; either way, they are not getting to know one another as individuals. Since both houses of Congress are so closely divided, this makes it easier for everything to be seen through a partisan lens, shadowed by the looming presence of the next election. Ironically, the fact that redistricting and the advantages of incumbency have made so many elections non-competitive is also a factor, since it brings to Washington politicians who appeal to a partisan base, rather than legislators adept at building bridges to a wide range of voters. 

At the same time, you could argue that Congress is also mirroring society as a whole. While the media should bear some of the blame, since it likes to highlight conflict and political extremes, in its own way it, too, is reflecting trends around it. Strident and even obnoxious behavior attracts listeners and viewers and generates respectful attention. 

You might ask, if Congress is simply reflecting the society around it, why should we worry that it has so much trouble making civility its norm? Because on Capitol Hill, the ability to work together directly affects both the quality and the quantity of the work that gets done. Incivility and outright rudeness make it virtually impossible to reconcile opposing views and, therefore, to achieve legislative goals or produce good legislation. In an atmosphere rife with distrust and unpleasantness, it becomes all the more difficult to discuss complex issues, search for reasonable solutions or build the consensus needed to pass them. If we expect Congress to provide the political leadership this country needs to resolve such difficult problems as the lack of affordable health care or how American workers will pay for retirement, then we must expect its members to work together, regardless of partisan affiliation or ideological differences. In my early years in the House, the Speaker at the time, Carl Albert, drove this point home by telling new members always to remember that each of their colleagues was the duly elected representative of 500,000 Americans, so they owed every one of them the same respect they expected for themselves. 

Members of Congress are politicians, and they are sensitive to the dislikes of their constituents. If they believe that they will pay a price for returning home empty-handed or displaying obstinate partisanship, they’ll change their behavior. But this means that constituents must make it clear that they do not like divisive name-calling, constantly attacking an opponent’s motivation, and blatant partisan calculation. Perhaps we could launch a movement to ask each of our representatives in Washington to sit down and copy, by hand, George Washington’s rules. I particularly recommend that as they do, they ponder the first, “Every action done in company, ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present." 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)