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Getting Back to Legislating, Remarks of Don Wolfensberger

Donald Wolfensberger

Getting Back to Legislating, Remarks of Don Wolfensberger at Bradley University Conference on Returning Civility to Our Public Discourse Tuesday, April 16, 201

Thank you for that kind introduction. It’s a real pleasure to be here and participate in this important conference on the need to return civility to our public discourse.

When I read that the title of Frank Mackaman’s talk today was “Civility in the Golden Age, 1959 to 1969,” I thought to myself, “Dang! I just missed it.”

I didn’t start working on the Hill until January of 1969 when I joined the staff of my Congressman, John B. Anderson of Illinois.

One of my colleagues, suggested that it may have been my arrival on the Hill that caused everything to go down hill after that.

I do not ascribe that much importance to myself and my meager congressional reform efforts, for better and worse.

We did get some negative feedback, when I worked for Anderson, about helping to force Speaker Tip O’Neill to finally agree to televise House floor proceedings.

However, on balance I think the American people are the better for the increased transparency televising Congress’s committee and floor debates has brought; so I make no apologies.

I have been assigned to talk on the topic, “Getting Back to Legislating,” which is the title of the report I drafted for the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Woodrow Wilson Center based on six roundtable discussions we had with groups of former House and Senate Members, senior staff, and congressional scholars over the last year and one-half on the culture of Congress.

You can find the full report with accompanying data on both Centers’ websites.

The main conclusions drawn by the roundtable participants was that the culture of Congress had indeed slowly changed over the last four decades --evolving from a culture of legislating to a culture of campaigning.

Some have referred to this as “the permanent campaign.” In my book I have called it the “perpetual campaign” because I think that better captures the image of a perpetual motion machine –of Members of Congress being driven almost 24-7 by their own reelection imperative.

And their leaders respond to that need with party-driven legislation that helps to feed that reelection beast, and please the party base.

In short, we have moved from serious, deliberative policy making to address the real needs of the nation to what I would call partisan messaging aimed at addressing the reelection needs of Members. I will refrain from coining the phrase: “from legislating to message-nating,” but you get the picture.

That’s why the report that emerged from our six roundtables is simply titled, “Getting Back to Legislating: Reflections of a Congressional Working Group.”

The top suggestion is not new or novel, and that is that Congress return to five-day work weeks —with three weeks in session followed by one week off.

That kind of schedule would allow committees to get back to real, deliberative policy-making and oversight –something they cannot do on their current Tuesday-Thursday schedule.

I will not go through all the recommendations, but instead focus on the report’s discussion of civility, since that is what this conference is all about.

Let me preface that by citing a study published early last year by the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

It found that the first session of the 112th Congress” in 2011 had not produced the kind of incivility that marked the 104th Congress in 1995-1996—the first Gingrich Congress.

Moreover, the study concluded that this past decade has been considerably more civil than the previous decade.

The study bases its finding on the number of times words are taken down in the House. That is the point of order raised by one Member against another charging that the Member has been engaging in personalities or using unparliamentary language in debate.

The Chair makes a ruling and, unless the offending Member apologizes, he or she is barred from the floor for the rest of the day.

I don’t quarrel with the Annenberg Center’s finding that there is less name calling today than 10 or 20 years ago. But I would suggest that has never been the real problem.

In our report, “Getting Back to Legislating,” we differentiate between “incivility” and “uncivility.”

Incivility is defined as overt expressions of anger or hostility toward one’s partisan opponents, while uncivility is defined as passive rudeness that fails to regard members of the other party as worthy of respect or recognition because of their political views.

Uncivility basically means ignoring your opponents or failing to engage them in positive dialogue.

That’s a much more serious problem than incivility, because it means that Members are talking past one another rather than with one another.

And if you don’t have basic, civil relations with others, it is obviously impossible to reason together about the nature of a problem and its solution.

That’s my definition of deliberation – a reasoning together about the nature of a problem and its solution.

Uncivility is a much tougher cultural nut to crack than incivility or name calling since deliberation and dialogue are supposed to be the essential condition or prerequisite for problem solving.

If you can’t even discuss the nature of a problem with your political opponent, how in the world are you ever going to come to an agreement on its solution?

What the report concludes is that while uncivility is not the underlying problem affecting the institution of Congress, it is a symptom of the deeper disease at the heart of the problem, and that is hyper-partisanship.

However, unless you find ways to first treat the symptom, you will never cure the disease: you will not begin the process of returning the culture from one of perpetual campaigning to one of deliberative lawmaking.

You may recall the cliché from all those cowboy movies, when the grizzled old cowpoke advises the young greenhorn, “Shoot first and ask questions later.”

Well, that’s kind of what Congress is like today … only without the questions.

What I would like to see is for Members of Congress to turn that around so they are guided by the mantra –“Talk and ask questions first, and save the shooting –the partisan potshots --for the campaign trail.

The term Congress, after all, means “a coming together.” And yet, today it looks more like “a coming apart” – sometimes, a coming apart at its very seams.

That’s at least the perception the people get from their brief glimpses of Congress through the nightly news and from the late night comedians.

They see what is supposed to be the First Branch of their government unable complete its most routine business on time -- passing a budget, re-authorizing essential, non-controversial government programs, and appropriating money to run those programs. That is my definition of dysfunction: not being able to carry out your basic functions.


Now, not being able to solve climate change overnight is not dysfunction, it’s democracy: trying to develop national consensus over a complex problem that involves deep differences between and within the parties and the citizenry, and requires extensive deliberations in weighing the huge costs and benefits to society that various solutions might entail.

Getting back to basic legislating, however, is not and should not be all that difficult. The guidelines for doing so are readily available— in the Constitution and in House and Senate rules manuals.

We call it, restoring the regular order by which all members, regardless of party, participate in an open and robust legislative process, from committee action, to floor debates and votes, to conference committees with the other body.

I realize this glib prescription begs the question by not addressing the main obstacle standing in the way of returning to the regular order.

That obstacle, as I have already discussed is the difficulty of changing a culture that is so entrenched – the campaign culture that permeates everything that Congress does.

That culture is reinforced both internally and externally by reelection-seeking politicians and their political and interest group supporters.

Congress is not like a corporation in which a new CEO can come in and change the corporation’s culture overnight by edicts imposed from on high.

Leaders in Congress are not CEO’s, but rather are servants of their Members with all their diverse interests and demands.

I am reminded of the French revolutionary leader who was talking to a journalist in his home and looked out the window and saw a crowd rushing by in the streets.

“There go my people,” he said. “I must follow them for I am their leader.”

That sounds a bit funny, but the fact is that a good leader is a good follower. There was many a time during my tenure as a House leadership staffer that I heard a variation on that from our beloved House Republican Leader Bob Michel: “A good leader is a good listener.”

Leaders in Congress who don’t listen to their followers to figure where they want to go and help them get there—who don’t follow the wishes of their party caucus members, risk being overthrown if they get too far out front.

Just ask Speakers John Boehner or Newt Gingrich—both of whom faced threatened coup attempts from members of their own party caucus in the House.

So, how does Congress counter those internal and external enablers of the campaign culture?

There is only one force great enough to reverse that campaign culture and bring Congress back to a culture of legislating: that force is public opinion.

A young Republican from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln had it right when he told a party rally in Chicago in December of 1856: “Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion can change the government, practically just so much.”

Members of Congress are very aware of and sensitive to the power of the people as reflected in public opinion.

It is expressed not just at the ballot box, but through the mails, at town hall meetings, and daily encounters with constituents on the streets of our small towns and big cities.

And now, perhaps more powerfully than anything, through the social media which have become a new public bull horn.

It is through public meetings such as this that public sentiment congeals and popular movements are born and mobilized for change. That is the story of this country’s dynamic history of change.

As Frank Mackaman mentioned in his remarks earlier today, there are some encouraging signs that things are beginning to turn around, with more talking across the aisle in both houses about solving issues like gun violence, immigration, and the debt and deficit.

I do think Members of Congress got an earful in the run-up to the 2012 elections and are acutely aware of the low regard in which people hold the Congress today.

That kind of pressure, and yes, humiliation, needs to be sustained if Congress is to truly change its ways.

Continue to hold your elected representatives accountable; hold their feet to the fire, until they feel the heat and squirm and start moving in the direction of working for the good of all the people --in the national interest.

I am now happy to practice what I’ve been preaching today by inviting you to join in this conversation with your questions and comments.

Thank you again for inviting me and thank you for your attention.

About the Author

Donald Wolfensberger

Donald Wolfensberger

Congressional Scholar;
Former Director, the Congress Project, Wilson Center; Former Staff Director, House Rules Committee
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