Cooperation: Congress Simply Has To Bring It Back

Bill Frenzel
Bill Frenzel
Bill Frenzel Former Brookings Expert

February 22, 2006

Is congressional comity a thing of the past? To this frequently asked question, most political observers would answer yes. The poisonous environment on Capitol Hill is regularly cited, even by the members of Congress themselves.

Relationships between members, and the parties, are now marked by as low a level of comity and as high a level of animosity as anyone can remember. Except on pork barrel committees, where members tend to scratch each other’s backs, life under the Dome has become nasty and brutish, with civility in short supply.

Lack of comity would not be such a bad thing if members of Congress were the only ones who had to suffer from it. But comity is important to good lawmaking. Successful legislative practice includes both knowing when to stand up and fight, and when to sit down and cooperate. Bullying majorities and recalcitrant minorities can rarely deliver sound policies, especially in the Senate where gridlock has become the order of the day.

It is only a few years since Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., and Minority Leader Bob Michel, R-Ill., showed that they knew how to get along in the House despite wide differences in political philosophies. In the Senate, where the filibuster rule requires a minimum degree of comity to move any legislation at all, Sens. George Mitchell, D-Maine, Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Howard Baker Jr., R-Tenn., managed to move from majority to minority, and vice versa, with undiminished comity.

Cooperation is difficult under the best of circumstances. Comity must be sufficient to provide a basis for trust and/or respect so that the warring factions can occasionally come together to their mutual advantage. No comity means slow, and probably flawed, policy development, or a policy vacuum.

As important as comity is, it is well to remember that our form of government was designed as a place of battle. Free and unrestrained debate is the euphemism we use to describe what politicians know is really all-out war. Whether in Congress, in the state legislatures, or at lower levels, policymaking in America has always been a contact sport. When the old-timers said, “Politics ain’t beanbags,” they were referring not only to campaigns, but also to the policymaking process.

The “good old days” are often inaccurately recalled as kinder and gentler. Those who served in the minority, or were losers in major votes, have no such illusions. They carry enough scars and bruises to remind them of suppression and savage infighting.

But even if conflict is the natural condition of our political processes, it is still true that comity is, at times, helpful to good decisionmaking. There are times when compromise, cooperation, and collective actions are either necessary or preferable to achieve optimum results. Today cooperation is seldom attempted and even more rarely achieved. The well has been poisoned. The lessons taught by Foley and Michel, and Mitchell, Baker and Dole have been forgotten or rejected.

The reasons for the comity drain are many, but they begin with the public. In the past, public opinion often kept the contact sport from becoming a collision sport. The public liked a good political fight, but not all the time. When it thought the game unnecessarily contentious, it blew the whistle. The gladiators took the hint and subsided, at least temporarily.

Nowadays, things are different. The people seem to like fighting most, if not all, of the time. And the public is encouraged by a new crop of fight promoters who every day demand more and more vigorous political confrontations. The new cheerleading crew is headed by the so-called “core constituencies,” but they are aided and abetted by the media, which have correctly sensed that reporting political fisticuffs is increasingly attractive to the public.

At the same time, political campaigns have become more negative and more ferocious. Political managers and advisers don’t live in the district and don’t care what kind of bad feelings they leave behind. After being trashed, personally and relentlessly, in a mean campaign, members aren’t likely to want to turn the other cheek when they return to Washington.

But, the greatest comity-inhibiting factor is the tightness of our elections. A change of only a handful of seats in Senate or House will shift control of either or both bodies. Self-preservation has always been the prime motivation of Congress. A huge part of self-preservation is keeping your party in charge, or getting your party in charge.

As long as party strength remains so closely divided, neither party will be inclined to do any favors for the other. There are no truces or even time-outs. Nor will individual members want to reach out. Too much is at stake in every political action, process or decision.

Because these conditions are unlikely to change soon, the entire burden of restoring comity in the short run falls on members of Congress themselves. Collectively, they have shown little interest. The job requires extraordinary leadership and persistence. The prize is worth the extra effort. The penalties — the inability to make good and needed policies in a wide variety of areas — will only get more painful.