The TakeAway: We must hold lawmakers accountable to high standards of statecraft, just as we hold ourselves accountable when engaging on ‘hot button’ issues such as corporate accountability, sustainability, and human rights.
It was a high-minded day. Following a Native American blessing and other remarks, last night President Obama called for civility and national unity at the memorial service for Tucson’s shooting victims. Earlier, Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) gave an emotional speech on the House floor after introducing a resolution honoring those who were killed or wounded, and called upon the membership to “carry on a dialogue of democracy”. One by one, members of Congress rose to pay tribute to their colleague Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) who continued to fight for her life. On Tuesday, President Clinton said the tone of political debate must change.
While these are sincere and heartfelt statements about collective aspirations and commitments, they’re undermined by Congressional images and vocabulary. Despite calls for civility, some House leaders responsible for financial reform, climate policy, health care, and other critical problems continue to use incitive sound bites. Since taking over last week, the House has turned up the rhetorical heat at a time when cooler heads and bipartisan problem solving must prevail. It’s time for Congress to abandon polarizing language and restore decency and integrity to the business of statecraft. It’s also time for us to hold them accountable, just as we hold ourselves accountable through stakeholder engagement on controversial topics affecting corporate accountability, sustainability, human rights, and other issues where reasonable people disagree.
Just how shrilly partisan have our Congressional workspaces become? Consider these committees having jurisdiction over contentious issues:
- The default webpage of the House Financial Services Committee, which midwifed Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation, screams “Collateral Damage”, with military colors and font evoking the wartime meaning of the term: death and destruction of non-combatants.
- The default website for the House Committee on Energy & Commerce, with responsibilities for climate change and energy policy, is dominated by Republican partisan messages and makes no mention of Democrat committee members. In fact, the Democrats have their own website—policy apartheid on one of the nation’s oldest standing committees.
- The House Rules Committee website has a calmer look, but under the “Active Bills” section, you see links to “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act” and replacing it with other legislation. These repeal efforts will move forward next week, deferred from this week by the Tucson tragedy.
In addition to the visuals, it’s the adjectives and ungrounded assertions that stand out—qualities not conductive to deliberative dialogue. The “Collateral Damage” page asserts that the Democrats “rushed through” a bill that “failed to address the real causes of the financial crisis” and claims, among other things, “the Democrats used the crisis to pursue their long-term goals of a government managed economy”. As we reported last week, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) introduced a bill to repeal Dodd-Frank. Informed observers believe it’s unlikely to garner needed votes but will whip up emotion over the ongoing financial crisis. Meanwhile, the FinServ website is peppered with PR releases (written on the URL) from “Chairman Bachus”—issued before Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL) became chair.
Over on the Energy & Commerce Committee website, you’re faced with a colorful display of Republican press releases that signal the intent of Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), the new chair, to seek repeal of “budget-busting job-killing Obamacare”. There’s also a box for “Republican Tweets” and one for YouTube videos featuring Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), the unsuccessful candidate for reappointment as Committee chair, who’s prepared to do battle with the EPA and “Obamacare”, while “saving” the incandescent light bulb. The Democrats have their own Energy and Commerce Committee website, partisan yet more broadly informative, which features a tribute to Rep. Giffords along with links to earlier legislation and archived news releases from former chair Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA).
As for the Rules Committee, its postings promise to revive the divisive health care debate, but within a changed political landscape. Next week’s revival serves as a test of the political truce over tone—which applies to digital discourse as well as speeches from the floor.
Since Saturday’s shootings, the flood of opinion on gun control and mental illness have also raised many questions about whether our politics is broken, our public rhetoric tainted, our ability to disagree cramped by a media hungry for ratings, our asymmetric vulnerability to crackpots heightened by hostile rhetoric and fabrications. While no one’s proven motive beyond madness as responses to Tucson’s tragedy continue to sort themselves out, most agree we live in a highly volatile, polarized political environment that’s gotten worse in the past few years.
As President Obama said last night, “At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do – it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
Let the first step begin with Congress, because that’s the arena where high-minded rhetoric is most tested. And let the rest of us be diligent in reminding them, and ourselves, to align our values with our actions—which stakeholder engagement practitioners and other decent people try to do every day.