With impeachment underway, one committee spends a day talking about civility
While many members of Congress spent Thursday talking about impeachment, one House committee held a hearing on promoting congressional civility. Those two ideas may not seem likely to co-exist, but those who testified hold out hope that Congress can come out of the coming drama in better shape.
"There is an overarching question we have to engage," Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, told the House Committee on the Modernization of Congress. "Are we facing a crisis in a democracy that is durable and capable and up to the task? Or are we actually facing a crisis of democracy in an institution that's strained and brittle and at real risk?"
It remains to be seen what, if anything, a divided Congress can accomplish in the midst of an impeachment inquiry. But, he noted, it somehow functioned under similar situations in the past.
He pointed to the 649 bills that President Richard Nixon signed with articles of impeachment filed against him and the 148 bills Congress passed during 10 weeks of House impeachment hearings against President Bill Clinton.
But while polarization in Congress existed during the 1970s and 1990s, the level of party polarization today is at historic heights, said Jennifer Nicoll Victor, a George Mason University professor, citing roll call statistics dating back to the 1870s.
Economic inequality, party alignment over issues of race and reliance on fundraising dollars from ideological donors have contributed significantly to today's polarized environment and the souring of congressional civility, Victor said.
"Congress is a victim of a cancerous phenomenon much more than it is a willful participant in discord," she said.
Solutions on how to fix the civility crisis often returned to a central theme: helping members get to know each other.
"We engage others with greater civility and respect if we recognize in them what we all share as human beings and Americans," Keith Allred, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, said.
Recommendations included requiring bipartisan orientation for new members, hosting weekly bipartisan dinners and creating block scheduling to carve out time for lawmakers to interact.
Former Rep. Ray LaHood, a Republican, told the committee the House should reintroduce biennial retreats for members and their families as a way to build relationships, an idea supported by others on the panel.
LaHood credited the retreats he helped organize from 1997 to 2003 for helping foster friendships that resulted in the passage of signature bipartisan legislation.
"It's pretty hard to trash somebody on the other side when you know their spouse or you know their kids," he said.
Both Victor and Grumet recommended reauthorizing earmarks, which were banned by Congress in 2011 as a good-government reform idea but had the unintended consequence of distancing members, Victor said.
"By eliminating earmarks, now essentially what we've done is we've eliminated one of the key things that members of Congress can bargain over," she said. "If you don't have those objects over which you can negotiate, then it's really hard to engage in building a bipartisan coalition."
More voters see "corruption in our political system" as the country's most pressing problem than any of the other issues getting greater attention in the 2020 campaign, new polling shows.
The online survey conducted in September asked voters whether seven different issues were an "extremely serious problem" for the country, and the only one where a majority said yes was political corruption; rising health care costs came in second at 49 percent.
The poll is only the latest to declare the electorate's dire concern about the broken political system. In just the last month, two-thirds of voters told one poll they believe the country is on the "edge of a civil war" and a plurality in another poll identified the government itself as the country's biggest problem.
But the topic of democracy reform is getting hardly any mention in the presidential race. Though most of the Democratic candidates have plans for limiting money in politics, making voting easier, securing elections and restoring the balance of powers, few have emphasized these ideas on the trail. And President Trump, who four years ago ran as the candidate most interested in "draining the swamp," rarely mentions this aspiration anymore.
A Democratic advocacy group has filed a third lawsuit in less than a month challenging Michigan laws and policies it says restrict voting rights.
The focus on Michigan voting laws by the super PAC Priorities USA reflects the importance of the state's 16 electoral votes in the 2020 presidential election. President Trump won Michigan, a swing state, by less than half a percentage point in 2016.
The latest lawsuit, filed Friday in state court, challenges actions taken after a successful 2018 ballot initiative expanded voting options, such as allowing people to register to vote at any time (including on Election Day). It also automatically registered people to vote when they obtained or renewed their driver's licenses.