Fed up with the partisan bickering, demonizing of the opposition and ad hominem personal attacks that have become so prevalent in Congress, in 2006 Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver II, a centrist Missouri Democrat and Methodist minister, founded the Civility Caucus. Cleaver admits that the initiative has proven a tough sell in a legislative body that rewards straight party-line votes and verbal pugilism. Some colleagues have rebuffed Cleaver’s initiative as starry-eyed while others have questioned his mettle. "We haven't had to hire any new receptionists to handle all the phone calls and applications to join," he has lamented. Yet Cleaver, a former city councilman and Kansas City’s first black mayor, has made civility a signature issue. To date, the task force has attracted one other member, Shelley Moore Capito, a moderate Republican from West Virginia’s third district. Cleaver and Capito have staged “civility hours” on the floor of the House, debating subjects such as health care, the Iraq War and tort reform.
For further discussion on the current state of civility in our government, be sure to watch the accompanying short film, "RP Roundtable: Civility and Politics," featuring a panel of elected officials and political thought leaders including Rep. Capito.
As members of Congress, what’s your definition of responsibility?
Capito: Making law that provides opportunity for our constituents back home and around the country.
Legislating relies on building majorities and often rewards grandstanding, particularly in the House. Where does civility fit in?
Capito: What the American people want is for us to be problem solvers. Essentially, to be like them. I believe we can do this without ripping each others’ character, party or region. We can do it with passion but without derision.
Cleaver: I’m an obsessed animal lover; my family makes fun of me for it. Recently I became interested in stories about bees – it turns out bees cannot sting and make honey at the same time. One of the problems we have in the House is a preoccupation with stinging. As a result we cannot make honey – we cannot get things done. Because of the way we treat each other, we’re not doing what we were sent here to do. Look, we’re human beings. At the end of the day, we can’t sit down at a table and negotiate with someone who’s just called you a dog or some other vicious name.
The Civility Task Force has proven a tough sell among your colleagues. What do you think is driving their skepticism?
Capito: I think a large part of the resistance is instilled by the media. The more hyperbolic you are, the easier you can get on the evening news. And compromise is often portrayed as caving. In the House, there’s pressure to provide “red meat” to the base, the most polarized segment of your party – to be viewed as the one who’s really giving it to those bad guys across the aisle. I don’t see it like that; I think that to be effective you first have to be able to sit down with a person and negotiate.
Cleaver: Shelley and I could talk about civility all day long and not get an iota of coverage. If we cursed and ranted at each other instead we would be in the headlines, above the fold. Even the language reflects this. Just look at the coverage of the current debt limit debate: “Who will blink first? Who will fold?”
Does money factor into the rancor?
Cleaver: Often, when a congressperson goes on a tirade, he or she can pretty much count on raising large sums of money. Some send out fundraising letters right after appearing on the news.
Are there colleagues that, for you, personify civility in Congress?
Capito: Soon after I arrived in Washington, Ted Kennedy and John Boehner got together to work on “No Child Left Behind” and got it done. Two extremely different people.
Cleaver: Walter Johnson and Pat Wolf. Hal Rogers and Norm Dicks work extremely well together on the House Appropriations Committee. Ike Skelton was terrific.
How do “civility hours” encourage a more respectful tone?
Cleaver: Recently Shelley and I staged two hour-long debates on the House floor about issues we disagree on. We did this to demonstrate to colleagues that it’s possible to disagree without resorting to personal attacks.
Vitriol seems to characterize the House more than the Senate. What do you think makes the House of Representatives less civil?
Cleaver: In the Senate, if you’re in the minority, you can still wield a lot of power. In the House, the majority is everything. Also, we’re always in campaign mode.
Capito: Emmanuel is right. Frankly, compared to us, I think members of the Senate are able to take more time to relax and enjoy each other’s company.
Is the tone in Congress moving closer to where you think it should be, or are things getting worse?
Cleaver: Things are definitely getting worse. Take a look at Allen West’s recent outburst if you want proof.
Have personal experiences motivated your involvement with this issue?
Capito: You may laugh at the answer, but I’m the middle of three children, and growing up I was always the negotiator. Probably some of it is personality driven. I’ve been torn down pretty hard, but I always try to not return fire.
Cleaver: I grew up in public housing – I had a bad temper and was always ready to fight. I still have scars; I wear a mustache to cover up stitches on my upper lip, where I was hit with a brick. In college, when I was captain of the football team, the coach came up to me and told me that if I started another fight on the field, he’d fire me. I went through the rest of the season without participating in a single fight because I learned to control my anger. Somewhere along the way I realized I could do that. Back home, I’m also a minister. As it says in Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
Alex Halberstadt is the author of Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Salon, New York Magazine, and other publications.