We’ve been talking about an incident from years ago in which, after a very tough fight over a rule in which Congressmen George Mahon (D-TX) and Clarence Brown (R-OH) battled each relentlessly, the chief combatants adjourned, had dinner together with their wives and played bridge. How times and the Congress have changed! I postulated in the last commentary that the causes of today’s incivility are more than just runaway partisanship. There are some institutional causes as well.
Early in my career in the House I was allowed to take the Public Broadcasting authorization to the Floor. The Republicans chose a mid-west conservative of similar inexperience to carry their opposition. I didn’t know him but grew to hate him on sight. There he was, over there on the other side of the chamber, trying to chop up a program I strongly believed in. All I knew of him was he opposed me.
Then I took a foreign trip with perhaps a half dozen other Members, including my nemesis. We all worked hard during the day, sometimes through dinner. And we relaxed “hard” too. After a day’s work many of us would repair to the bar; chat, tell jokes, gossip, laugh – do normal things that normal people do. I got to know this fellow. The truth is – it is impossible not to like the guy. It is very interesting how the tone of our debates changed from when we didn’t know each other. We no longer took personally our differences on policy.
A few years later I chaired a sub-committee and he was the ranking Republican. There was much we did not agree on. And we crossed swords many times. But I knew him, knew I could trust his word, new him to be honorable.
We once even reported out of the full Energy and Commerce Committee a complex and controversial bill with a unanimous vote. That doesn’t happen when your opposition is your enemy. That can happen only when you know someone well enough to trust them and trust them enough to work out honorable compromises.
That is how Congress is supposed to work. But campaign pressures that take Members home every weekend and tighter rules that have reduced the opportunities for Members to getaway and relax with colleagues have contributed to a climate in which Congress no longer works that way. And that is bad for Members, bad for governance and bad for the public.
That colleague from across the aisle and I never actually had dinner together. And I am a lousy bridge player. So we didn’t quite duplicate the experience of Mr. Mahon and Mr. Brown. But we came close.
Closer than most Members can today, because we had time and the opportunity to do so.
Today’s Members need to find that time and make those opportunities.