WASHINGTON – Democrat Steve Israel first met Republican Tim Johnson when Israel, in a rush to get out of town at the end of a congressional week, bloodied Johnson by slamming the door to the House chamber on his foot.
Israel, a third-term congressman from Long Island, N.Y (search)., says he looks back on that inadvertent but nonetheless painful first encounter as emblematic of the attack-first, talk-later, atmosphere in the House today. Now he's teamed with Johnson in the latest effort to make the House a more civil place.
Johnson, a third-termer from rural Illinois, agrees that there has been "an exponential increase in the level of rancor, in the level of acrimony" that he says is a disservice both to the Congress (search)and the country.
Reasonable compromise is difficult, he said, citing the current debate over Social Security (search) reform where "one party is telling the other they are atavistic socialists from the 1930s and the other party is saying they are trying to starve old people."
Israel and Johnson, in announcing the formation of the Center Aisle Caucus (search), say they hope to reduce partisan warfare through modest measures such as holding more informal briefings on issues and unscripted after-hours discussions, and giving minority Democrats more time to express their views.
Johnson said they will also be "blowing the whistle when members are unnecessarily disrespectful."
Israel noted that some of their ideas originated in the House gym, "the most competitive but civil place on the Hill."
Separately, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said that, at the behest of Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., she is organizing a task force to study ways to improve civility.
"The level of debate in my four years has deteriorated," she said. "It's time to take a breath and respect each other's positions."
It's hardly the first time members of the notoriously partisan House have launched civility campaigns. In 1997 Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., and former Rep. David Skaggs, D-Colo., came up with the idea of family retreats where Republicans and Democrats could get to know each other in informal settings. The first of four, in Hershey, Pa., drew more than 200 members and spouses but they've since been discontinued because of waning interest.
In a historical perspective, the verbal assaults of today pale in comparison to the dueling, shootings and bludgeonings that at times settled differences in the past.
But Tom Foley, Democratic speaker of the House from 1989 to 1994, said at a news conference with Israel and Johnson that "it is clear that the House has become a more tense, more confrontational (and) more rancorously partisan" place.
Bob Michel, the Republican leader from 1981 to 1994, recalled wistfully how "at one time it was fun, actually enjoyable, to be a member of the House." He said he used to join the late Speaker Tip O'Neill for a drink after work, or play golf with Democrats on the weekend.
That's an unlikely scenario today where Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., maintain a polite but distant relationship.
The lack of face time is often cited as a major reason Republicans and Democrats can't get along. The House frequently meets only on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Israel and other members rush out the door Thursday afternoon to catch flights home, where they must cater to constituents and raise money for the next election. Many of today's younger members with school-age children never relocate to Washington.
Jerome Climer, president of the Public Governance Institute, said more than half of congressional families don't reside in Washington, a "monumental shift" from 15 or 20 years ago. Climer, who helped organize the four House retreats, said another factor making Congress a naturally contentious place was the introduction of television coverage. "Members became performers rather than participants in debate."
The Senate — smaller, slower-paced and more clubbish — is traditionally better behaved, but has also shown some strong partisan tendencies recently with Democratic filibusters of GOP-backed judicial nominations and Republican attacks on former Democratic leader Tom Daschle and his successor, Harry Reid.
Michel contended that civility doesn't require lawmakers to abandon their conservative or liberal beliefs. "I had a more conservative voting record than Newt Gingrich," he said. "The point being that I talked to people: That made me a moderate."