The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress held its 10th hearing on Thursday, September 26. Members discussed the theme “Promoting Civility and Building a More Collaborative Congress.”
Select Committee Chair Derek Kilmer (D-WA) noted that the theme of civility came up in each of the nine previous hearings. “It’s uncanny—no matter what issue we’re discussing, the topic of civility always finds its way into the conversation,” he said.
Committee members heard from former Transportation Secretary and former Representative Ray LaHood (R-IL), who served in the House from 1995-2009; Professor Jennifer Victor of George Mason University; Jason Grumet, the founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center; and Keith Allred, the Executive Director of the National Institute or Civil Discourse.
The common theme across the witnesses’ testimonies and Member questions was how and why Members should foster relationships with their colleagues in the other party.
“We have to make sure that we have partners on both sides of the aisle to get our jobs done,” said Representative Susan Brooks (R-IN), a member of the Select Committee’s civility subcommittee.
One idea to build to build relationships that met with widespread support was reviving the bipartisan congressional retreats that occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“You should all start planning a bipartisan retreat,” LaHood said.
“You know, it’s pretty hard to trash somebody on the other side when you know their spouse, or you know their kids,” he said.
LaHood was instrumental in planning four bipartisan civility retreats. For the first retreat, he worked for over a year with a committee of other Members to plan. They invited Member spouses and children to attend, since many families had not had the opportunity to interact with families of the other party. Over 200 Members, about 120 spouses and about 100 Member children attended.
“Those relationships have lasted well beyond Congress,” LaHood said.
According to him, leadership buy-in is critical for a successful retreat. The first thing Members will ask the organizing committee is whether the Speaker or Minority Leader supports the effort, he said.
He also said that constituents work with people of differing views in their personal lives, so they understand the need for Members to work across the aisle to produce legislation. A retreat would allow Members the opportunity to build bipartisan relationships that will allow them to advance substantive legislation, like infrastructure, immigration or fiscal reform bills.
“People are clamoring for this. If you go back home and you tell people…you’re organizing a bipartisan retreat, people will say ‘Hallelujah, it’s about time,’” he said.
Members across the dais and other witnesses supported LaHood’s call for a bipartisan Member retreat. Representative William Timmons (R-SC) called the idea a “no brainer.”
In addition to bipartisan retreats, Members and witnesses discussed other venues to create bipartisan relationships. For instance, this week’s Congressional Football Game, where Republicans and Democratic Representative form one team to play against the U.S. Capitol Police, and the House gym were cited as places where Members could meet others from the opposite party. Congressional delegations, fact-finding trips abroad, colloquially referred to as CODELs, were also discussed as opportunities for greater bipartisan relationships.
As the Members and witnesses discussed the opportunities for bipartisan relationship building, Professor Victor raised a caveat. Though she said she did not dismiss any of the hearing’s ideas in themselves, some research suggests that forcing bipartisan interaction could backfire. Requiring such activities may the effect of “sometimes retrenching partisanship and creating more division when you intend to create connections,” she said.
In addition to all the solutions discussed, the Select Committee itself was held up as a model of civility for other Members to imitate.
“This Committee is a great example of how Members who represent different constituencies and have different views can actually engage in civil, productive discussions and find
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research director. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the Legislative Branch.