When Did Civility Get Sidetracked?

Tue, 2015-06-02

By: Jane Calderwood, Director of Congressional Programs, National Institute for Civil Discourse

Note: Jane Calderwood is our new Congressional Programs Director here at NICD. To introduce hereself, we asked her to share her perspective on the decline in civility she witnessed during her tenue on Capitol Hill. Below are her thoughts on the state of civility in our nation's capital. 

When I started working for Congress in 1983, we didn’t have Twitter, Facebook or know what an “internet” was.  Tip O’Neil was Speaker of the House, and lived by the rule that “All politics is local”.  

We did our work on electric typewriters and went through a lot of white out and carbon paper.  We got our news from the Washington Post, the New York Times and the 3 networks – ABC, NBC and CBS.  Meet the Press, Face the Nation and This Week on Sunday morning were required viewing as they were the gospel according to politics.  C-SPAN wasn’t a household name, and while we could watch the House floor on TV, Senate staff still listened to floor debate on radios (the Senate did not allow C-SPAN TV coverage until 1986).

We dealt with constituent needs via phone or by snail mail. Then we got email – at first it was just within our 3 room office – at about the time Newt Gingrich went from a bomb throwing back bencher to Republican Whip, created the Contract with America, and in 1994 lead the Republicans to their first majority in the House in 50 years.  A year later he shut down the government.

In 1995, I moved to the Senate.  Bob Dole and Tom Daschle were the Majority and Minority leaders, respectively.   The line that divided the Republican and Democratic sides of the aisle was more imaginary than real and it was crossed on a regular basis.  Senators like Chris Dodd (D-CT) worked with Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and John Chafee (R-RI) to get bills like welfare reform passed by ensuring robust child care funding was included.  To do that both sides had to compromise.   Finding middle ground wasn’t always easy and there were times it simply didn’t exist.  But when members made a commitment to improve a particular program or policy, they would accept changes they didn’t like in order to ensure that the proverbial ‘baby’ wasn’t thrown out with the bath water

We passed a 2001 tax reform act that included the refundable child tax credit because a determined bipartisan group of Senators wouldn’t take no for an answer – not even from the White House.  Days after it passed, Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party, turning control of the chamber over to the Democrats.  In September after 9/11, for a short time, there were no democrats or republicans, only Americans. 

 In 2002 after numerous efforts, and a lot of hard work, bipartisan campaign finance reform – McCain-Feingold – became law.  It was the result of thousands of hours of work, and the determination of a group of House and Senate members from both sides who were unwilling to let the status quo stand.  That same year, Majority Leader Trent Lott was booed at Senator Paul Wellstone’s funeral service, and then lost his leadership position when controversy arose over his remarks at Senator Thurmond’s 100th birthday celebration.

After a bruising fight in 2003 over the size of the tax cut in the Bush budget, and 20 years on Capitol Hill, I left to work in the private sector.  Congress remained part of my work and my world, and while I didn’t follow every move, I still kept a close eye on things.  In late 2012 I returned to help my former boss finish out her last term.  The mood and the interaction between parties was far worse than when I left, and I was surprised at just how wide the chasm had become.  In 2013 I returned to the House to assist another member through his last year.  I found that many things had changed in the 19 years since I had last worked there. 

I think it is easy to blame the 24-7 media for the loss of civility, and I do blame them for part of it.  After all, if you aren’t going to help them make news, most shows don’t want you as a guest.  And while we were taught that if you can’t say something nice it is best not to say anything at all, when you’re a politician and you want attention, some of them will say just about anything to get it.

The American public is also to blame, though, as we have given a pass to politicians by accepting this behavior as the norm.  Instead of holding them accountable for their behavior and pressuring them to work to make the changes needed to move our country forward, we tweet and Facebook our favorite shouting matches.

When I was a young House staffer, there was a House member who came to the floor to share what we jokingly referred to as ‘the atrocity of the day’. It didn’t matter if it was the Defense Department spending $600 on a toilet seat; the Russians in Afghanistan or welfare fraud, he found something to rail about every single day the House was in session.

I feel now, that instead of just one member, the majority of them feel compelled to share the atrocity of the day.   It is easy to find the worst stories –examples of government waste and abuse or of man’s inhumanity to man – and it is a lot easier than doing the homework necessary to make the compelling arguments to get people to change their mind and side with you on an issue. 

But that latter speech is unlikely to get your picture in the paper or a mention by Joe or Rush or George or Chuck.  Nor is it likely to draw hundreds of followers to your Twitter page or garner likes on Facebook.

When I saw that NICD was looking for a Director of Congressional Programs I applied immediately because their mission is what the members I worked for – and what many I worked with – practiced.  And I know, from my own experience, that working together we can make a difference.