This opinion piece went to press before the results of yesterday’s voting were known. But regardless of who will serve as the country’s next Speaker, one question will remain distressingly front and center: how we can return a degree of civility and professional discourse to an institution that has drifted far from such a mooring.
We now find ourselves at a point where a veteran Member of the House can — without a word of admonishment from her Party’s leadership — call on people to “get in the faces” of those with whom they disagree, and who vows openly to use the power of a committee chairmanship to wreak vengeance on political enemies. Others call for “kicking” opponents when down.
We have seen confirmation hearings for a nominee to the highest court in the Land descend into shouting matches that would be, in some other setting, utterly comical.
It has become fashionably facile for Democrats and others to lay blame for this toxic environment at the feet of Donald Trump. The plain-speaking president frequently makes it easy for such a charge to be levied. However, the current condition has been far longer in the making than two years; and congressional leaders, especially those on the Democratic side, have done virtually nothing to stop or even slow the downward spiral.
Rekindling civility in a body grown unaccustomed to it, will be neither easy nor quick. But there is one step which Party leaders on both sides can take that could at least start that process. It is a step surprisingly simple; a move actually taken two decades ago by a man – Newt Gingrich – who was demonized by the Left as being uncivil, but who truly understood and advocated for civility in public policy debate.
The retreat forced Members from one Party to be in close proximity to their counterparts on the other side of the aisle, for two solid days with no easy escape; and in settings far different from the structured, adversarial environs in which virtually all House business had been defined to that point.
One of my sons, watching Chuck Schumer dance with his daughter during an evening party while we were in Hershey, turned to me and remarked that, “he is as bad a dancer as you are, Dad.” In fact, Schumer was not as bad a dancer as I was (and remain), but my son’s observation encapsulated precisely what that weekend retreat accomplished. The exercise pushed us to see each other as husbands, wives, parents, and neighbors.
It worked; for a while. Unfortunately, leaders from both Parties failed to follow up on its success over the long term. But for one brief, shining moment, the ice of extreme partisanship melted away and was replaced by civility.
Whoever is elected Speaker come next January, I would strongly urge he or she take that same small step as did Newt Gingrich and Dick Gebhardt in January 1997. It worked then and will work again. Lord knows we need it now more than ever.