February 28, 2020
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Governing amid poisonous words

Contributed | BDN
Contributed | BDN

Note: This op-ed was adapted from Senator Collins’ speech at the Ignatius Program on Oct. 5, 2010.

I don’t know who first described politics as the “art of compromise,” but that maxim, to which I have always subscribed, seems woefully unfashionable today.

It’s a tough time to be a moderate in the U.S. Senate. Sitting down with those on the opposite side of a debate, negotiating in good faith, attempting to reach a solution — such actions are now vilified by the hard-liners on both sides of the aisle. Too few want to achieve real solutions; too many would rather draw sharp distinctions and score political points, even if that means neglecting the problems our country faces.

A historian might say that at least we don’t have one member caning another into unconsciousness, as when Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina flogged Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the Senate floor in 1856. But in modern times, I have not seen the degree of bitter divisiveness and excessive partisanship now found in the Senate. The weapon of choice today is not a metal-topped cane but poisonous words.

It wasn’t always this way. There were times when those who worked to avert legislative implosions were more welcome. In 2005, a group of senators came together to negotiate an agreement for considering judicial nominees. This “Gang of 14,” of which I was part, sought to avoid what was known as the “nuclear option,” a change in the Senate rules that would have brought about a legislative meltdown.

Democrats had used the filibuster to prevent the confirmation of some of President George W. Bush’s appellate court nominees. With the rallying cry that nominees deserved an “up or down vote,” Republican Senate leaders threatened to change the rules to prevent filibusters from being used to block judicial confirmations. Democrats countered that the rights of the minority had always been protected in the Senate and warned that if the rules were changed, the Democrats would block action on everything.

While leaders on both sides hardened their positions, the 14 of us — seven from each party — joined to forge a solution. We established a new standard, stating that we would support filibusters of judicial nominees only in “extraordinary circumstances.” Applying that standard, the Democratic senators in our coalition supported cloture for five of the seven filibustered nominees, resulting in their confirmation. In turn, we seven Republicans agreed to oppose the “nuclear option,” thus thwarting the plans of the GOP leaders.

Our deal restored trust and helped preserve the unique culture of the Senate. It showed that the two parties could come together and reach an agreement in an atmosphere of mutual respect and good faith.

Oh, how times have changed. When I led the effort in 2009 to try to produce a more fiscally responsible stimulus bill, I was vilified by partisans on both sides. On the left, I was attacked by columnists for cutting $100 billion from the bill and mocked in the blogosphere as “Swine Flu Sue” for my contention that spending for a pandemic flu did not belong in the stimulus package but should be part of the regular appropriations process. On the right, I was denounced as a traitor and a RINO (“Republican in name only”), and one of my Republican colleagues targeted me for a campaign that generated tens of thousands of out-of-state e-mails denouncing me.

What changed to produce such incivility, such personal and painful and nasty debate?

During the past two years, the minority party has been increasingly shut out of the discussion. Even in the Senate, which used to pride itself on being the bastion of free and open debate, procedural tactics are routinely used to prevent Republican amendments. That causes Republicans to overuse the filibuster, because our only option is to stop a bill to which we cannot offer amendments.

This unfortunate phenomenon happened again with the recent consideration of the defense authorization bill, which included a repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. I have supported ending that policy and was the sole Republican on the Armed Services Committee to vote for repeal. If gay individuals are willing to put on the uniform of our country, to be deployed in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, to risk their lives for their fellow citizens, then we should express our gratitude to them, not exclude them from serving or expel them from the military.

I recognized, however, that many of my colleagues disagreed, and that they should have the right to express their views and offer their amendments on this controversial issue — as well as many others in the defense bill. But Majority Leader Harry Reid did not agree. Because of his stance, I found myself in the awkward position of voting against moving forward on legislation that I supported and that contained a change in policy I advocated.

This was the 116th time in this Congress that the majority leader or another Democrat filed cloture rather than agreeing to allow amendments to be debated. What concerns me even more is the practice of filling up the amendment tree to prevent Republican amendments — this was the 40th time that was done.

By contrast, when the White House is controlled by one party and at least one chamber of Congress is in the hands of the other, the president has no choice but to reach out and negotiate. It would be a lot easier for President Obama to resist the hard left of his party if he could say he has to pursue legislation acceptable to a Republican House or Senate. Or better yet, from my perspective, both!

When I was a freshman senator in 1997, Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island, as fine a gentleman as has ever graced the Senate chamber, advised me never to campaign against those with whom I served. The Senate is too small a place for that, he counseled. Campaign for your fellow Republicans and go to states with open seats, but do not campaign against your Democratic colleagues. It will poison your relationship with them.

Back then, most senators followed the “Chafee rule,” but that soon changed. Now many enthusiastically campaign against their colleagues across the aisle. I was shocked when, in 2008, two Democratic senators came to Maine and unfairly criticized my work during my highly competitive race that year. My willingness to work with Democrats had been well established over the past decade, and there was no one running that year with more bipartisan legislative initiatives and accomplishments than I had. But that didn’t stop them.

This year’s elections have shown just how far the destruction of collegiality has progressed, with some lawmakers campaigning against senators in their own caucus by endorsing their primary opponents. Such personal campaign attacks have detrimental effects that last long after Election Day.

I am not suggesting that civility requires us to accept the unacceptable. Good manners must not prevent the telling of unpleasant truths. When Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine went to the Senate floor 60 years ago to deliver her famous “Declaration of Conscience,” she did not do so to demonize Wisconsin’s Sen. Joseph McCarthy personally but to denounce his actions. She certainly gave him great offense, but she spoke the truth about his tactics of ruining reputations, crushing free speech and smearing opponents. Telling the truth about McCarthy’s conduct in strong, tough language was far more important than worrying about offending him.

In contrast, consider the House member from my party who interrupted Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress a year ago by yelling “You lie!” Or recall the House Democratic member whose contribution to the health-care debate consisted of asserting that Republicans had a two-word plan: “Die quickly.” These are decidedly uncivil acts, designed not to reveal the truth but only to offend.

President Ronald Reagan understood that there would be times when civility for civility’s sake was not the premier value. But it was his fundamental commitment to civility that allowed him to work so well with Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill and to forge a genuine friendship with him. His belief in the power of political civility also led to his formulation of the 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.”

So where does this leave us?

Students of American culture might ask whether incivility is a strictly Washington phenomenon or a reflection of changes in our society at large. That question reminds me of the response that then-Sen. Lowell Weicker gave to an unhappy constituent who denounced him and his colleagues as “a bunch of liars, thieves and womanizers.” Weicker calmly replied: “Well, it is, after all, a representative form of government.”

I will not try to play sociologist and weigh in on this issue except to say that there are indications that as a people we are becoming less civil — just witness the attack journalism on cable television, the growing incidence of bullying in schools, the use of the Internet to smear those one does not like and the popular appeal of shows in which people are fired or voted off islands.

I am more confident in asserting that even if Washington leads the nation in incivility, it is not likely to change until those outside Washington demand it. What gets rewarded gets done, and for those of us in Congress, reelection is the ultimate reward. Voting out of office — or not electing in the first place — those who put partisanship over progress and conflict over compromise would create a very different legislative climate, one in which the objective is to solve the problem, not to win the debate.

It may not be easy to feel passionate about civility and compromise, but it is easy to feel passionate about a vibrant, just and prosperous America. To achieve that, however, we need to get passionate about electing legislators who not only work hard but work together.

Not long ago, I happened upon George Washington’s “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior,” a transcription of various guides to etiquette, written when Washington was but a teenager.

There are 110 points. First of all, be respectful. Second, if you itch, be careful where you scratch. Third, don’t scare your friends. Fourth, in the presence of others, avoid humming or drumming your fingers. (I cannot tell you how wonderful it would be if humming and drumming were the greatest threats to civility in the Senate.)

It is not until No. 110 that young George got to the heart of the matter: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

That little spark lights our way much more brightly than bomb-throwing, scorched-earth, incendiary political rhetoric ever will.

Susan M. Collins is a Republican senator from Maine.

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