Civility War: Ex-Congressmen Ask Peers To Play Nice "Civility" and "Congress" are two words that often don't seem to go together.  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 asking every current congressional candidate for civility.
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Civility War: Ex-Congressmen Ask Peers To Play Nice

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Civility War: Ex-Congressmen Ask Peers To Play Nice

Civility War: Ex-Congressmen Ask Peers To Play Nice

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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GUY RAZ, host:

If you turn on C-SPAN or a cable news program, there's a good chance you'll find a member of Congress, neck veins bulging, angrily denouncing the opposition.

Representative ALAN GRAYSON (Democrat, Florida): The Republican health care plan is this: Die quickly.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): We're about 24 hours from Armageddon.

Representative MICHELE BACHMANN (Republican, Minnesota): Now we've moved into the realm of gangster government.

Representative ANTHONY WEINER (Democrat, New York): It's Republicans wrapping their arms around Republicans. It is a shame.

RAZ: That's Democrat Anthony Weiner. And before that, we heard his fellow Democrat Alan Grayson and two Republicans, House Minority Leader John Boehner and Michele Bachmann.

A former member of Congress, Democrat David Skaggs, got so fed up with the incivility on Capitol Hill that he called up his old friends who also served, Democrats and Republicans, to see if they'd sign an open letter to candidates running for office this year. The letter demands a return to civility.

Republican John Porter, a former House member from Illinois, also joined. So did 130 other former members of Congress. And both congressmen join me now.

John Porter, David Skaggs, welcome to the program.

Mr. JOHN PORTER (Former Republican Congressman, Illinois): Thank you.

Mr. DAVID SKAGGS (Former Democratic Congressman, Colorado): Thank you. Glad to be with you.

RAZ: First to you, Congressman Skaggs, what do you attribute the incivility in Congress to? Why do you think it's happening now?

Mr. SKAGGS: Well, we have created a workweek in Congress that doesn't give these men and women very much time simply to get to know one another as people so they can deal with each other in a more respectful and ultimately trusting way.

RAZ: A few months ago, we had Alan Simpson on the program, the former Republican senator from Wyoming. And he spoke about how, when he was in Congress, he used to play cards with other members from the opposite side. He used to go out to dinner with them.

We talked to members of Congress today. They do not socialize with members on the other side of the aisle. Have you heard that?

Mr. PORTER: Oh, yeah, that's the point that David is making here, that there is very little interaction on a human level between the parties.

RAZ: Can you remember any examples, Congressman Porter, when you were a member of the House when maybe you had a certain opinion about a member on the other side of the aisle, but then you got to know them socially, and that changed?

Mr. PORTER: Oh, sure. If you travel together, if you serve on a subcommittee or a committee together, and generally, I think there was a lot more mixing and getting to know people...

RAZ: You'd go out to dinner with members who were Democrats?

Mr. PORTER: Yeah, we always treated Republicans and Democrats the same way.

Mr. SKAGGS: You know, we tried for several years to have admittedly contrived occasions, the bipartisan House retreats, for getting members and their families together.

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SKAGGS: And it was magical to see...

RAZ: They actually worked?

Mr. SKAGGS: Well, they worked in the sense that you could tell 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.

RAZ: John Porter, when you served in the House, did you feel like you would sort of be viewed with suspicion by your fellow Republicans if you socialized with Democrats?

Mr. PORTER: No, I never felt that way. And I'm privileged to have Bob Michel in the firm where I work now.

RAZ: Former House minority...

Mr. PORTER: Former House minority leader...

RAZ: ...leader from Illinois.

Mr. PORTER: ...from Illinois.

RAZ: Yeah.

Mr. PORTER: And he tells me when he was leader, and Tip O'Neill and Tom Foley were speaker, they would go out and fight the battles, and then they'd sit down and have a drink together.

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PORTER: You know, be forceful about your position, but have respect for the other side and get to know them and - because you ultimately have to work with them. Because if you don't work with them, these problems never get solved.

RAZ: Presumably, both of you speak with current members of Congress. Do you ever encounter members of Congress who say to you, you know, I just don't like that guy. I just really don't like that person on the other side of the aisle?

Mr. PORTER: Yeah, but I don't know that it's really informed by having much of a chance to have gotten to know that guy. That's why we're doing this letter, why we're trying to encourage people to tone it down so that they can ultimately have a working relationship.

RAZ: David Skaggs, has there ever been a case where, you know, you're watching C-SPAN or debate on the floor of the House and you're just shocked at the way people are speaking?

Mr. SKAGGS: Yes, but I have to confess that I don't watch C-SPAN all that much anymore, perhaps for that reason.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Gentlemen, to the both of you, do you feel as if the attacks are a lot more personal now than they were when the two of you were in office?

Mr. PORTER: Well, I think that the campaigns for Congress are an embarrassment to our country and to democracy. Their job is to come to Washington and govern, not to come and espouse a philosophy or a party position on everything.

They have to realize that under our Constitution, you have to find common ground if you're going to get these things behind you.

RAZ: David Skaggs, are you going to have an impact? Is this going to change minds?

Mr. SKAGGS: Who knows what will be a catalyst for some change here. We just know we needed to do something to try.

RAZ: That's David Skaggs, a Democrat. He represented Colorado's 2nd District in the House of Representatives. We also spoke with former Republican Congressman John Porter from Illinois. Together, they're organizing a campaign calling on Congress to act in a more civil way.

Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining me.

Mr. PORTER: Thank you, Guy.

Mr. SKAGGS: Thank you for having us on.

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