It’s Not Just a Buzzword: Why Civility Matters in Congress

Given everything that’s been taking place on Capitol Hill, I’d guess you missed the announcement a few months back that the House Civility Caucus has been revived. It would be hard to call this earth-shattering news—but in our current political climate, it’s a notable measure of hope.

The caucus first came into being in 2018, when two members of Congress from Columbus, Ohio—Democrat Joyce Beatty and Republican Steve Stivers—launched the group with the idea that disagreement is inevitable in politics, but being disagreeable about it doesn’t have to be. It helped that the two had been friends for decades, ever since Beatty, then a state representative, confronted Stivers, a banker, about his bank’s practice of charging check-cashing fees for child-support checks. He’d agreed that, as he later told a reporter, “we needed to take responsibility and fix what we had done.” In Congress, the caucus attracted a handful of Democrat-Republican pairs from other states, but folded after Stivers left Congress.

This spring, however, Beatty and Stivers’ Republican successor, Mike Carey—the two are also friends—decided it was time to resuscitate the effort. In a talk not long afterward, Beatty noted that they have significant political differences. “But we have a secret weapon,” she said. “We actually like each other, and that makes a huge difference. We have a friendship beyond the House floor. We’ve also figured out how to have a friendship on the House floor—which, unfortunately in today’s times, might seem kind of rare.” The Congressional Civility and Respect Caucus, to give it its formal name, has several dozen members—split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, since anyone who wants to be part of it has to find a partner from the other party to join with them.

It might seem a sad commentary on the state of American politics that you need a formal caucus to promote civility, but I prefer to look at the other side of the coin: the fact that the caucus has been able to form and grow is a hopeful sign that even in that most partisan and divided of legislative bodies, the US House, a significant number of politicians want to chart a better way forward.

This matters because civil political debate actually stands at the core of our representative democracy. Our system was constructed as a way to manage disagreement—sometimes heart-felt, impassioned disagreement—without coming to blows or rioting or launching a civil war. People who don’t agree can still weigh issues carefully and, if they’re sincere, find common ground. Our founders did not count on all Americans becoming friends, but they did believe that we could be respectful and civil toward one another, and that by doing so, we could wrestle with and resolve the challenges facing our country.

And let’s be clear: Incivility is a problem. We don’t send our representatives to Congress or the 50 state capitals to yell at one another or refuse to cooperate with each other. We send them there to get things done, to confront the tough issues our communities, states, and nation face and to hammer out policies that make the lives of ordinary Americans better. In a country as ideologically and demographically diverse as ours, this cannot happen unless people who come from dramatically different points of view figure out how to work together. People who are rude and disagreeable—who play to their followers’ worst instincts, damn the consequences—just get in the way.

We’ve had a lot of that in Washington and elsewhere over the last decade or so, and my sense is that Americans have grown tired of it. So what may be most interesting about this problem is that we don’t have to change any laws or create new regulations in order to address it. It’s as simple as encouraging respectful behavior, one person at a time.

That’s why the Congressional Civility and Respect Caucus is a hopeful sign. The few dozen House members who have joined up so far are like a down payment, a small knot of legislators who know in their bones that there’s a better way and are determined to find it. Here’s hoping their influence grows.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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