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.
In early 1997, at the start of the 105th Congress, then-Speaker Gingrich and then-Minority Leader Dick Gephardt scheduled a three-day bipartisan retreat in Hershey, Pennsylvania for all House Members, along with their spouses and children. My wife and I, in the company of our two teenage sons, traveled to Hershey on Amtrak not really knowing what to expect.
Just two years prior, the House majority had switched from Democrat to Republican for the first time in four decades. Tempers were still high; emotions remained raw; and both sides eagerly anticipated battles to come. But the simple decision to transport everyone out of the Washington swamp to a resort in Pennsylvania for a long weekend, was genius, and at least in my opinion an unqualified success; if “success” is defined as creating a tangible degree of good will and understanding where little if any had existed previously.
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.
Democratic and Republican Members ate and talked together, in small groups and large over the course of two days and nights. Most important, the interactions took place with spouses and children present. This ensured that Members who might otherwise shout charges and level accusations at an opponent, to instead actually listen to one another and respond civilly. Members from one Party were able to see their counterparts from the other Party not as one-dimensional enemies to be shouted down and belittled; but as human beings with strengths and weaknesses as they themselves possessed. The exercise began to actually break down barriers reinforced by the relentless battering that had become standard fare in the Congress.
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.