A Civil Congress? Yes, It’s Possible – And Here’s How

Restoring civility to Congress is essential for curing gridlock. Here’s one way way to get there.

An enduring tradition in Congress is that Members of Congress technically do not address each other directly during debate. Rather, they address the Member managing the debate – typically the Speaker of the House, or the President pro tempore in the Senate. A corollary of this tradition is an amusing, unwritten rule for getting the attention of a colleague who’s particularly disliked: By piling on insincere flattery.

For example, a “normal” way to call attention to another Member would be to start off, “Mr. Chairman, I would say to my friend from Kansas…” But when two Members do not get along, they try to outmatch each other with “compliments.”

“Mr. Speaker, I would say to the honorable and distinguished gentleman from Georgia, that he is wrong when he cites those facts.”

The reply might be, “Mr. Speaker, in this case, the learned and scholarly representative from the great state of New York, is simply wrong.”

Such an exchange will often draw knowing smiles from insiders, because, as the saying goes, “Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.” The virtue, when it comes to Congressional debate, are the traditions governing the rules of debate that promote—even require—civility. Civility is essential for allowing Members of Congress to debate their ideas passionately but with respect for the right of their colleagues to be just as passionate about their disagreement.

The French philosopher Voltaire captured this American ideal behind tolerance and political free speech: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

In the year of angry voters, and the equally angry candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, a plea for civility might seem out of place or even passé. But perhaps it is more important than ever to remind ourselves that it is the traditions of civil society – as expressed in a liberal democratic republic through a system enabled by our Constitution – that allow people to express their anger and frustrations in a manner that allows for the peaceful resolution of legitimate grievances. This civility is what Congress is now in danger of losing – and taking with it hope of progress toward legislative change.

“Civil debate” is not another way to describe “politically correct” speech, nor is it an effort to force ideological moderation. It is the victory of liberal democracy over other forms of government because it allows for, and indeed expects, the ability of a government to hear from the diverse opinions of its entire population as expressed through elected representatives.

If civility allows for democracy, incivility injures it. When incivility creeps into political discourse, constructive discussion gives way to violent expression and dysfunction. This is certainly nothing new. There have been fist fights on the floor of Congress, and in one incident just prior to the Civil War, a House Member, Preston Butler of South Carolina, stormed on to the Senate Floor and nearly beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner to death with his cane. But that was reflective of the growing crisis between the North and the South, which eventually erupted into war.

While we are not now nearing a civil war, Americans know incivility in our politics is a problem. A poll by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate with KRC Research revealed that nearly all Americans (95%) say we have a civility problem. The report went on to say: “Americans believe that uncivil behavior has serious negative consequences: 77% say incivility in government is preventing action on important issues; 74% say the U.S. is losing stature as a civil nation; 75% say incivility makes it difficult to discuss controversial issues; 63% say they have stopped paying attention to political conversations and debates as a result of incivility; and 58% say incivility is deterring people from entering public service.” And this was before Donald Trump became a serious candidate.

As we have seen incivility increase, the government has become less effective, and the country’s governing processes have become more restrictive. In the House, majority parties have increasingly relied on “closed rules” for debating legislation on the floor. This is a procedure where the majority party votes to limit what amendments, if any, might be offered to a bill. Excessive and routine use of closed rules disenfranchise members of the political minority, who are unable to offer amendments supported by their constituents. As a result, their only option is to obstruct the process to inflict some pain on the majority for depriving them of their legislative prerogatives.

And the Senate – which had been famously known as the “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” – was reduced in the last Congress to becoming the least productive legislative body in history. According to Senator John Barasso (R-WY), during a one-year period in 2014, the Senate voted on only 19 amendments out of 1,952 introduced – about one percent. This was the direct result of tactical procedural motions from the Majority Leader designed to prevent any difficulties for the fragile Senate majority (It didn’t work). These tactics, known by insiders as “same day cloture” and “filling the amendment tree,” led to a complete breakdown in the Senate’s ability to function. The extremely controversial “nuclear option” to eliminate the filibuster for Executive Branch appointments and most judicial appointments was the coup d’état for Senatorial congeniality. You could fairly ask whether there was any real debate in the Senate at all last Congress.

To reduce incivility, Congress should reopen the legislative process to allow greater participation by Members, both in the majority and in the minority. Opening up the legislative process will restore civility by focusing the debate on policy issues instead of on power plays and obstruction. Of course there will be vigorous debate and tough votes. But there will also be bipartisan majorities where interests intersect. Occasionally, a Member in the minority will attract enough votes of those in the majority to successfully pass an amendment. This is good for the minority, and even better for the majority. By allowing full participation by the minority in the legislative process, the majority gives them a stake in the successful passage of the overall bill. It is much easier to win a confrontation with the president when a bill is passed by a bipartisan majority.

More opportunities to participate will also mean that individual members in the minority party will not have to see the rules and procedures of the legislature as existential threats that make them incapable of adequately representing their constituents in committees and on the floor of Congress. Restoring an open process makes Senators and Members of the House legislators again, not merely observers who vote on whatever deal is agreed to by their leadership.

Congress and the President’s failure to cooperate in implementing policies that serve Americans makes it seem like our leaders have forgotten how to govern. They haven’t, but instead of pointing fingers at each other and trying to assign blame, they need to find the will necessary to restore the tools for compromise and debate that enable effective communication and credit sharing, especially when partisan tensions are at their highest.

Elections have consequences, of course. The American people reward one party with a majority for a reasons, but a majority is more likely to be successful in enacting its agenda if it persuades the opposition through debate rather than overwhelms it with procedural force.

There are numerous proposals to re-open the legislative process. The best way to consider these would be for the House and Senate to create a Joint Committee on Congressional Reform, and invite the bipartisan membership to propose and recommend specific reforms and changes to allow Congress to legislate as originally intended. The Joint Committee could consider numerous good ideas, including some promoted by House Speaker Paul Ryan. Some worthwhile proposals would limit the use of closed rules; restore the power of authorizing committees (the committees where bipartisan oversight and review allow the Congress to hold the Executive Branch accountable, eliminate ineffective programs and create new ones); and bring sanity to a failed budget process. Creating a Joint Committee on Congressional Reform now is a way to make sure the next Congress and the new President are empowered to do the work they will be elected to do—and to do it in a civil manner.

Voter frustration with Congress’s incivility and inaction has made populist appeals across the political spectrum attractive to increasing numbers of people. But while anger is a powerful motivator to get people to the polls, it is a destructive force that makes impossible consensus building and sharing credit – the two hallmarks of our Constitutional system. Civil society requires respectful debate where all perspectives may be heard (no matter how offensive they may be to some people) and all solutions considered. Only then can those who are empowered by the consent of the governed devise the answers demanded to our growing challenges.

Mark Strand

Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and an Adjunct Professor of Legislative Affairs at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.