Side By Side Congress

Posted Jan. 19, 2011, at 7:36 p.m.

Some may dismiss it as a hollow gesture, but the proposal to seat members of Congress interspersed by party — Republicans sitting with Democrats — rather than the traditional partisan divide during the State of the Union address, will achieve decorum and strike a chord with a public eager to see cooperative government.

All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation support the move.

Many political pundits, both conservative and liberal, love to fan the flames of partisan passion. And elected officials play along. When Sen. Lindsey Graham is a guest on a conservative Christian radio program, he is happy to intimate Democrats are godless heathen. When Rep. Barney Frank is a guest on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show, he revels in the opportunity to dismiss Republicans as homophobes. The truth about Congress is that there are many cross-party friendships. They often attend the same parties, keep up with each other’s families and — gasp! — work together on minor is-sues that help their constituents. But such collegial relationships make for dull TV and radio.

One example of cross-party friendship born of proximity is the relationship that grew between former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The men ran against each other in 1992, yet became friends in 2001, and became especially close when they worked together for relief for the vic-tims of the subcontinent’s tsunami in 2005.

The debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, who ran against each other for an Illinois Senate seat and then for president, are legendary. Though the debates were often personal, the two men got to know each other by spending days and weeks together. At Mr. Lincoln’s inaugura-tion in 1861, when the president removed his hat to take the oath of office, it was Mr. Douglas who leapt to the stage to hold it, a gesture, historians say, reflecting respect for the man.

A letter to congressional leaders sets the stage for a symbolic and perhaps substantive change: “Let us agree to have Democrats and Republicans sitting side by side throughout the chamber. Beyond custom, there is no rule or reason that on this night we should emphasize divided government, sepa-rated by party, instead of being seen united as a country. The choreographed standing and clapping of one side of the room — while the other side sits — is unbecoming of a serious institution. And the message that it sends is that even on a night when the President is addressing the entire nation, we in Congress cannot sit as one, but must be divided as two.”

Philosophical differences remain, but by focusing on the values they share, the parties can be more effective. Sitting side-by-side for a night is a good first step.

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