Civility and Congress

Former Senators Discuss Past and Future of Partisan Debate

George McGovern

Sen. George McGovern, photographed during his time in the Senate. United States Senate hide caption

itoggle caption United States Senate
Alan Simpson

Sen. Alan Simpson as he appeared during his time in the Senate. United States Senate hide caption

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Preston Brooks caning Charles Sumner

In 1857, Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina entered the Senate chamber and beat Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Brooks accused Sumner of making derogatory remarks about his uncle, Sen. Andrew Butler in an anti-slavery speech. "Southern Chivalry - Argument vs. Club's" Lithograph, J.L. Magee/Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, New York Public Library hide caption

itoggle caption "Southern Chivalry - Argument vs. Club's" Lithograph, J.L. Magee/Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, New York Public Library
Lincoln- Douglas debate poster

This poster (c. 1937) marks the anniversary of the debate in DuPage County, Ill. Library of Congress hide caption

itoggle caption Library of Congress

The 108th session of Congress opens this week. Partisanship will play a major role, just as it has throughout history. Former Senators George McGovern and Alan Simpson talk with NPR's Liane Hansen about partisanship, bipartisanship and the state of civility in Congress.

McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee and a South Dakota senator from 1963 to 1981 values the "creative tension" between conservative and liberals in the Congress. But McGovern says things have changed since his time on Capitol Hill. "There's been a deterioration of the practice of civility that was quite strong in both the House and the Senate," he says.

Simpson, the Republican senator from Wyoming from 1979 to 1997, says, "The tough thing... is the terms liberal and conservative have taken on a harsh tone." He laments that the true meanings of the words have been lost in stereotypes. He admires McGovern "for sticking with the true meaning of the word 'liberal,' because that is not a negative word. It's compassion and caring and activism towards a cause, and those things are good."

McGovern and Simpson believe it is critical for a productive Congress that bipartisan coalitions exist. "I learned rather early on in the Senate that if you want to get something done you must have some sort of bipartisan component," McGovern recalls. He says his partnership with Republican Sen. Bob Dole was a good example of how politicians from opposite sides of the aisle, can work effectively toward mutual goals. "We both had a commonality of views on agriculture and on food assistance. So we teamed up together," he recalls.

Both men believe that the the tone and atmosphere of the Senate and political life in general is cyclical. McGovern notes that "outbreaks" of uncivil behavior have taken place periodically in congressional history, such as the near-fatal beating in the Senate chamber of abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner by Rep. Preston Brooks in 1857. On the other hand, McGovern praises the Lincoln-Douglas debates as a model of political exchange. "The serious discussion of the most fundamental issues... done without either one of those men blasting the other personally," he says.

Simpson is optimistic for the upcoming session in the Senate. "Because of leadership changes, the new leader of Senate... will be able to work with both sides well," he says. He predicts that Democratic leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota and and the new Republican leader, Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, will be able to work together "in a civil way."

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