Civility War: Ex-Congressmen Ask Peers To Play Nice

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Civility and Congress — those are two words that often don't seem to go together — especially in this season of high-octane, highly negative political ads.

But a group of 130 former members of Congress say it doesn't have to be that way. And this past week, they sent a letter to every current congressional candidate asking them to play nice.

The group, dubbed Former Members of Congress for Common Ground, is led by John Porter, a Republican from Illinois who left the House in 2001; and David Skaggs, a Colorado Democrat whose final term ended two years earlier.

The two tell NPR's Guy Raz that they teamed up after Porter attended a panel on civility that included Skaggs. Inspired by the barrage of attack ads in the current campaign, they came up with the letter-writing campaign.

'Inside The Beltway' Had An Upside

Skaggs attributes the incivility on Capitol Hill today to "a workweek in Congress that doesn't give these men and women very much time to get to know one another as people rather than as political opponents."

"Over the last 30 years or so," he says, "the practice of a new member of Congress moving his or her family to Washington has really gone away."

So that effort to stay "outside the Beltway" means congressional spouses and families don't often mix, he says. And spending that kind of time together outside of the day-to-day work environment is essential.

Republicans And Democrats After Hours

Porter remembers getting to know members of Congress from both sides of the aisle during friendly dinners and drinks outside of the office, in addition to the various events and meetings where both Republicans and Democrats worked side by side.

Skaggs goes on to explain that during those years, they also had what he refers to as "admittedly contrived occasions" such as bipartisan House retreats where members of Congress and their families would get together to socialize. The result was "magical," says Skaggs.

"When a member from one side of the aisle and another encountered each other with their young children in their arms — suddenly that became the commonality and the basis for getting along, and other things kind of became secondary, as they ought to be."

Porter says that during his time in office he never felt ostracized by his fellow Republicans for socializing with Democrats. In fact, it was something that was encouraged and happened regularly.

He cites a story told to him by fellow Republican Bob Michel, former House Minority Leader from Illinois. When Michel was Minority Leader, he worked alongside staunch Democrats Tip O'Neill and Tom Foley (each a former House Speaker). Michel fought against them when he had to, but then went out drinking with them afterward.

The lesson, Porter says, is to "be forceful about your position, but have respect for the other side and get to know them, because you ultimately have to work with them. Because if you don't work with them, these problems never get solved."

The Gloves Are Off

Porter believes that the way campaigns are run today is "an embarrassment  to our country and to democracy."

"Their job is to come to Washington and govern," he says of congressional candidates, "not to come and espouse a philosophy or a party position on everything."

To many, the idealistic principles that both Porter and Skaggs write of in their letter to Congress are the stuff that Capra films are made of. Skaggs himself admits to not knowing if their plea for civility will ultimately fall on deaf ears, but both former congressmen think it's their duty to try.



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