Rules Committee Reviews House Civility Proposals

Rules Committee Reviews House Civility Proposals

WASHINGTON - The Subcommittee on Rules and Organization of the House took testimony today on proposals for improving civility that emerged from the second Bipartisan Congressional Retreat. The hearing was part of an on-going Subcommittee study of the operations of the House in an effort to improve the legislative process and the internal workings of the institution.

The second Bipartisan Congressional Retreat was held in Hershey, Pennsylvania, on March 19-21, 1999. Organized by Representatives Ray LaHood (R-IL), Tom Sawyer (D-OH), Amo Houghton (R-NY) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA), the stated purpose of the retreat was to develop better relationships among Members, reduce partisan rancor, and improve the productivity of the House.

"Because of the Rules Committee’s role in matters related to scheduling and floor procedures, we had a strong interest in reviewing many of the proposals that have emerged from the second bipartisan retreat, as well as some of the procedural observations in Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s March 1999 report on civility in the House of Representatives," said Subcommittee Chairman John Linder (R-GA). Dr. Jamieson, who is the Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication University of Pennsylvania, presented her report to the participants of the bipartisan retreat.

"The witnesses provided useful perspectives on many of the retreat recommendations, historical levels of civility in the House, institutional factors engrained in the system that may affect civility, and acceptable areas for bipartisan cooperation," said Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier. "But the most important thing we can do is to improve civility to provide opportunities for Members and their families to get to know each other on a more personal level. It can be difficult for Members to know one another personally because the legislative schedule and the commitments we face while in Washington make it difficult to find time to socialize and make lasting friendships."

In addition to receiving testimony from the organizers of the retreat and Dr. Jamieson, the Subcommittee heard from former Representative Bob Walker (R-PA), President of the Wexler Group; Dr. Barbara Sinclair, Hoffenberg Professor, Department of Political Science, UCLA; and, Dr. Stanley Bach, Senior Specialist, Legislative Process Government Division, Congressional Research Service.

Dr. Sinclair urged the Subcommittee to be careful when making changes in House rules. "It took the House until the beginning of this century to establish in rules the rights of the majority to work its will," she said. "Don't sacrifice the House's majority rule character in an attempt to foster civility. The House is large in membership and confronts a big and complex workload; undermining the power of the majority to work its will undermines the capacity of the House to legislate."

Linder added, "A little humility and decency to others – not because they are Members of Congress, but because they are people – would go a long way. In addition, many times what people believe to be incivility on C-Span is actually the open exchange of honest ideological differences in an honest debate. We are sent here by our constituents to hammer out legislation, and our differing beliefs many times simply result in an honest and vigorous debate. Nonetheless, incivility in the House is rare. While events such as the bipartisan retreat in Hershey are very helpful to the level of discourse, wholesale changes do not appear to be necessary."