Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, minority leader in the House of Representatives, tells of his meeting with a citizens' group during a recent trip to San Francisco.
The first speaker said people were tired of lawmakers fighting and wanted them to solve the nation's problems. The second criticized the Democrats for not fighting for what they believe in.
Mr. Gephardt pointed out the two comments were contradictory, he recalls, and a third person responded: "Look, we know you disagree, and we want you to fight for your beliefs, but at the end of the day, we know you need to compromise and get stuff done and we want you to do that, too."
Gephardt's experience indicates how political leaders must walk a fine line between representing the interests of their party and forging compromises to pass laws in the national interest. Concerned about the lack of civility that rank-and-file members have displayed in recent years, Gephardt and House Speaker Newt Gingrich are taking steps to improve their own relationship and the atmosphere on the House floor.
The leaders are trying to build upon the good feelings resulting from a congressional retreat in Hershey, Pa., March 7-9. The road trip was organized by Reps. Ray LaHood (R) of Illinois and David Skaggs (D) of Colorado, who, after witnessing several rancorous floor exchanges, sought to improve relations by having members and their families get to know each other as individuals rather than partisan foot-soldiers.
House leaders praised the results of the retreat, which about half the House attended. "There's been a tremendous turnover in the House," Gephardt notes. "A lot of members don't know one another, even on their own party's side.... [W]hen you know somebody's spouse and children, it's a lot harder to get up and hammer them on the floor personally...."
The meeting has given a push to several proposals to civilize House debate. Reps. Bill Archer (R) of Texas and Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana recently wrote to Gingrich and Gephardt asking that the House's often fiery one-minute speeches be postponed until the end of the day to restore their original "benign purposes."
Plans are also under way for the Republican and Democratic leaders to meet regularly with each other and with members of the opposing party. While such sessions have taken place on a case-by-case basis in the past, none have occurred since the GOP took over. "In order for this to work, the leaders have to set the example." says Rep. Tom DeLay, House majority whip.
Congress's disputes may not be as bad as in 1856, when a South Carolina representative thrashed Sen. Charles Sumner (R) of Massachusetts with a cane. But most on Capitol Hill agree that relations between members, especially in the House, have reached a low in the last few years.
Some say the incivility has been growing for years. Republicans still stew about grievances dating back to the Reagan era. As for the Democrats, former Rep. Bob Michel (R) of Illinois, who spent many years as minority leader, says many Democrats were angered in 1991 when Gingrich, then minority whip, "took after [then-Speaker] Jim Wright the way he did." The Gingrich attacks ultimately resulted in Mr. Wright's resignation.
Still others date the downturn in civility to the transfer of power after the 1994 elections. "Republicans did not really know how to be a majority and the Democrats didn't really know how to be a minority," Gingrich says. "And we managed to make far more difficult what would have been a hard circumstance under any situation."
The two sides rarely spoke to each other. Gephardt says communication dried up because GOP leaders decided they didn't need to deal with Democrats. "The Speaker and the Republicans, for a lot of understandable reasons, saw the last two years as a parliamentary system," he says. "By that I mean, if you're going to get all the votes on every issue on your side alone, you don't need to fool with the minority very much."
Gephardt says the closer numbers following the 1996 elections, and the experience of their first two years in power, have convinced GOP leaders that they need to work with Democrats.