This month the 112th United States Congress was born. These 535 men and women – Democrats, Republicans, and Independents – who represent us are beginning to confront the many crucial issues that face our nation. They will do this in an institution where hyper-partisanship reigns and where there seems to be no limits on how members talk about one another. The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona and bystanders this weekend seems to be a horrifying example of how such an atmosphere has trickled down to the rest of us.
Commenting on how political culture has changed for the worse in Washington, outgoing Sen. Arlen Specter (D) of Pennsylvania, 80, said in his final Senate speech: “Collegiality can obviously not be maintained when negotiating with someone simultaneously out to defeat you, especially within your own party. In some quarters, ‘compromise’ has become a dirty word. Senators insist on ideological purity as a precondition. Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine had it right when she said we need to distinguish between the compromise of principle and the principle of compromise.”
He concluded by quoting journalists Steve and Cokie Roberts, “Civility is more than good manners.... Civility is a state of mind. It reflects respect for your opponents and for the institutions you serve together.... This polarization will make civility in the next Congress more difficult – and more necessary – than ever.”
Personal relationships over political party
Contributing to this polarization are a number of factors. One is that members of Congress simply don’t eat with one another anymore. There was a time when members made time to break bread together, which allowed for personal relationships to form that could transcend political orientation. Those relationships were a keystone to creating an atmosphere in Congress that valued an opposing perspective.
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In mid-December, at the founding meeting of the No Labels movement, whose goal is to mitigate the damaging partisanship of politics in the United States today, former Sen. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana recalled that when his father, Democratic Sen. Birch Bayh, also of Indiana, ran for re-election, Republican Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois asked him how he could help Bayh get reelected. Dirksen understood the importance and the value of having someone good from the opposite party in Congress. In the present climate, one could never imagine Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell offering to help re-elect Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D) or Vermont’s Sen. Patrick Leahy (D).
Constant campaigning means social isolation
In today’s pernicious atmosphere, members of Congress are not encouraged (if anything, they are discouraged) to share a meal together. Even when they have the time, they are told that it is better spent raising money for their next campaign or raising money for a colleague’s campaign. Adding to this social isolation members have toward those who sit across the aisle is the fact that, in this age of jet travel, members of Congress spend most weekends back home meeting constituents. In addition, fewer members of Congress raise their families in the DC area. While greater access to our congressional representatives is a very important function of democracy, it’s also safe to say that with fewer congressional families living in the DC area, and with members home for long weekends, it means members have less time to spend with colleagues in more informal social settings.
On the blog section of the No Labels website, one writer and his wife (Bob and Elyse Kallen) posted a story about a political contribution he made to a candidate running for the Senate. The contribution came with a condition that the candidate, if elected, would agree to have lunch with a senator from across the aisle. After she was elected, Bob met her and asked her if she had had that lunch. She sheepishly admitted that she had not. She explained that the Congress she entered was such a polarized institution that she was afraid she would be rejected by her own party leaders if she became perceived as too friendly with members not from her own party.
Have lunch with someone on the other side
This hyper-partisanship does not sit well with all members of Congress. Near the end of the 111th Congress, a group of ten Republican and ten Democratic senators, including New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D), came together under the partnership of Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virgina and Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia to create a more healthy way of doing business in Congress.
Now that Congress is back in session, let them set an example by scheduling lunch with a member from a different political party. Essayist and author Gene Santoro once wrote, “If politics is what we do to each other, culture is the way we talk to each other.” Congress could use some more culture, as could all of us.