After Obama win, how civility can come to Washington

After the election last night, President Obama and Mitt Romney rightly spoke of the need to reach out to the other side. But today's political divisiveness has been decades in the making and will take decades to undo. Here's how that can happen. It starts with citizens.

Philip Andrews/Reuters
Supporters cheer after President Obama gives his victory speech at his election night rally in Chicago, Nov. 7. Op-ed contributor Kurt Shillinger writes: Voters must push for reforms to congressional district maps and primary contests. Those 'would bring more moderates to the House and Senate. A moderated Congress would in turn change how it does business.'

With the long election season over and control of the White House, the House, and Senate unchanged, is the stage now set for a more conciliatory tone in Washington?

Both presidential candidates paid service to that hope post-election. Celebrating his reelection in Chicago, President Obama told supporters, “You elected us to focus on your jobs, not ours. And in the coming months I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we an only solve together.” Mitt Romney similarly urged the leaders of both parties “to reach across the aisle and do the people’s work.”

The so-called fiscal cliff provides an early opportunity for cooperation. The nation faces deep mandatory spending cuts and tax increases on Jan. 1 unless Mr. Obama and Congress agree on an alternative long-term plan to reduce the budget deficit. There is a possibility that Republicans in the Senate, having failed in their strategy of denying Obama a second term by obstructing the legislative process, could set a more constructive course.

But what of the long term? The divisiveness that characterizes today’s political scene has been decades in the making. It will likely take decades to undo – propelled by a persistently engaged public who demand more from their government than political warfare.

How might civility and cooperation come to politics in Washington?

The causes of bitter partisanship are diverse. They include the political realignment of the South in the wake of the civil rights movement and the partisan wounds of Watergate. Add to that the indignities inflicted on Republicans during the 40-year Democratic reign in the House and the backbench GOP tactics that ultimately broke that hold in 1994. The increasingly partisan media, meanwhile, scorn compromise, while aggressive campaign spending by the parties and wealthy outside contributors undermines the principle of local representation.   

The result is dysfunction. The parties have become militant. Partisan interests often override the common good. Party leaders demand lockstep loyalty and punish individual action, stalling a legislative system that requires deliberation and a degree of consensus.

To map a way out of this condition, let us consider a date in the future by which we have restored Congress to its design and relation to the presidency: a House of vibrant debate, a Senate of cool deliberation, a strong People’s Branch keeping watch over the Executive and the nation’s purse. Let’s take the cautiously optimistic goal of 2033. By then the nation’s political map will have been redrawn twice by the decennial process of redistricting.

What needs to happen between now and then?

First, voters will have to exert unrelenting pressure to reform the drawing of congressional voting districts, the running of primary contests, and the funding of campaigns – all issues related to how Americans choose the people who represent them.

This kind of pressure is already bearing some fruit today. To correct the problem of gerrymandered voting districts that make no sense demographically but that reliably return partisans to the House, for instance, 13 states have put the job of district mapping in the hands of nonpartisan commissions.

Let’s say that ahead of the 2020 national census – which will trigger the next round of redistricting – a handful more states adopts the nonpartisan-commission approach. A decade later, perhaps a dozen more follow.

As a result, the country slowly creates more competitive races at the congressional level, because candidates have to compete in – and represent – more politically diverse districts. The partisan edge softens somewhat.

Simultaneously, more states change to open and inclusive party primaries so that the names appearing on November ballots are chosen by the full voting public rather than the polarized activist bases of the parties. At least 18 states currently have open presidential primaries, but that is an incomplete reform. Open primaries allow all registered voters to participate, but the ballots remain either all-Democrat or all-Republican. Open, inclusive primaries would put all candidates before all voters.

Redistricting and primary reforms would bring more moderates to the House and Senate. A moderated Congress would in turn change how it does business.

House reforms would include voting for the speaker by secret ballot, which gives majority party members cover to vote their conscience without risking retribution from their own leadership. To increase “face time” with each other and build comity, Congress should work a Monday through Friday schedule in Washington, instead of today’s Tuesday through Thursday routine – but for three weeks a month so that members still have ample time in their districts.

Two more steps are vital. Adhering to the norm of 15-minute electronic voting would help eliminate bullying of members by their leaders to vote the party line. In recent years, majority party leaders have left votes open for up to three hours to coerce reluctant members to change their positions in favor of the party’s will.

The committee system needs to be restored as well, so that legislation is drawn up through deliberation and expert input rather than behind closed doors between party leaders and vested interests.

Citizens would also need to demand that the parties embrace two important campaign-finance reforms. First, members of Congress should be prohibited from fundraising from January to June of each year. That might offset the advantages of incumbency somewhat, but it would give legislators more time to focus on the nation’s business and provide a modest buffer against constant lobbying.

Second, congressional leaders must be compelled to end the practice of requiring their members in the House and Senate to raise funds for the party’s use in specific races. The best way to do that is to compel state legislatures to require that campaigns for Congress be funded from within each individual district. That would also prevent the excesses of financial influence unleashed by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010, which allowed unlimited spending by corporations and unions on electioneering.

Across the Rotunda, the Senate will need to finally adjust the filibuster – a once-rare tactic that is now so commonly used by the minority to block the majority agenda that a senator merely has to register anonymously through the party’s leadership an intention to filibuster to achieve the desired blocking result.

That could be done as early as when the next Senate sits in January. It simply means that filibusters must be actual filibusters, with the objecting senator taking the floor and holding it for as long as endurance or desire holds. Add to that a requirement that filibusters must be germane to the opposed legislation and the intent to filibuster – called a hold – be published so voters know the name of the objecting (or obstructing) senator.

Both chambers would also have to provide equal numbers of seats to each party on the Rules Committee, ensuring that the procedures governing bills are agreeable to each side.

Bringing civility and deliberation to Washington also requires reigning in the culture of accusation for political gain and re-instilling a greater sense of institutional fealty. To break the Democrats’ 40-year control of the House, Republican backbenchers like Newt Gingrich and Vin Weber used ethics accusations in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a way to disrupt the majority’s legislative agenda and discredit its leaders. Both parties have since embraced the tactic. Shifting ethics issues to an independent commission would break the cycle.

Before members take the oath to defend the constitution, many have already signed a binding partisan pledge, like Grover Norquist’s vow never to raise taxes, that puts them in a policy box. Banning external pledges would help build more loyalty to the constitutional responsibilities of public office.

One more reform would help purify the waters of legislating: prohibiting former members and staff from lobbying Congress for six years after leaving Capitol Hill.

None of these reforms will come easily. They require bending the will of parties seeking a monopoly on power through centralization, bullying, rules violations, and electoral games. Change will hinge on the precept that there is no civility without deliberation, and without deliberation democracy founders. A more constructive dialogue in government requires regular meetings between the president and congressional leadership, a return to Ronald Reagan’s rule that politics ends at 6 p.m., and greater allegiance to the institutions and branches of government among the people who serve them.

But none of this will be possible without the people’s resolve to reclaim the ideal of self-government. Only they can “take back the government” through citizen initiatives, a rejection of partisan attack, a more discerning consumption of information, and an abiding demand that the neighbors they call to represent them serve their constituents before their party.

Kurt Shillinger is a former political reporter for The Christian Science Monitor. He also covered sub-Saharan Africa for The Boston Globe.

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