With one month to go until mid-term election day 2010, 130 former member of Congress have written an extraordinary letter to current candidates and members, urging civility and constructive engagement across the political aisle in the interest of national progress. The group is led by former Representatives John E. Porter, Republican of Illinois; and David E. Skaggs, Democrat of Colorado.
The truly bi-partisan group, dubbed Former Members of Congress for Common Ground, doesn’t demonize partisanship—which they call “a core part of American democracy from the beginning and are central to every democracy.” But they point out that partisanship has blown through the boundaries of good citizenship and constructive congressional work habits. This has undoubtedly been a factor in Congress’s dreadful approval ratings. Worse, it has made it difficult to address current crises and enable U.S. leadership in the world.
It is a strong letter that calls for virtue in the practice of politics and that derides the destructive habits that are currently gripping both campaigning and governing. It is hard to enlist support for calls for civility; this is a welcome effort.
Congress appears gripped by zero-sum game partisanship. The goal often seems to be more to devastate the other side (the enemy, no longer the honorable adversary) than to find common ground to solve problems, much less to have a spirited but civil debate about how to do so.
The divisive and mean-spirited way debate often occurs inside Congress is encouraged and repeated outside: on cable news shows, in blogs and in rallies. Members who far exceed the bounds of normal and respectful discourse are not viewed with shame but are lionized, treated as celebrities, rewarded with cable television appearances, and enlisted as magnets for campaign fund-raisers.
To change this climate, the former members issue a strong call to congressional candidates now in their final month of campaigning:
Conduct campaigns for Congress with decency and respect toward opponents, to be truthful in presenting information about self and opponents, to engage in good faith debate about the issues and each other’s record, to refrain from personal attack, and if elected, to behave in office according to these same principles, recognizing that all Members endeavor honorably to serve the Nation and their constituents and to advance honestly held beliefs about what is best for the country, and that all must eventually reconcile their differences in the national interest.
Meanwhile, lawmakers who try to address problems and find workable solutions across party lines find themselves denigrated by an angry fringe of partisans, people unhappy that their representatives would even deign to work with the enemy. When bipartisan ideas are advanced, they are met by partisan derision.
It would be great to see droves of candidates signing on now, and after the election, I’d like to see 535 signatures on this document and an electorate that will hold members of Congress to this high and worthy standard. Not likely, but what a positive impact that would have on Washington’s ability to accomplish great things for the national good.