Ending rancor in the House
THE growing rancor between Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives is deeply worrisome. The recent acrimony over the use of the camera on the House floor is an example of the level of tension. Perhaps it is tied to the presidential election year, when political emotions run high. But many House members, including me, fear that this may be an ongoing trend rather than a temporary phenomenon.
It is important now for both Republicans and Democrats to recognize that a continuation of this rancor will undercut the legislative process. Most Americans are neither Republicans nor Democrats but are independents. This expresses a desire for pragmatism over ideology. Members of the House, without abandoning their individual philosophical approaches, should also approach problems pragmatically.
The undermining of bipartisanship in Congress is due to many factors. Members today do not know each other as well as they once did. Social contact has been limited by the increased demands of public service, campaigning, and fund raising. Moreover, the turnover in Congress since the 1970s has been high, which makes it more difficult to know other members well.
Therefore, the deep personal ties which once existed among members are more difficult to establish today. These ties have often cut across party lines and philosophies and helped establish a sense of comity in the House. Friends in the House may differ with each other on a bill or issue, but they do it without the vitriolic personal attacks we have been having in recent days.
There have also been institutional changes in the House which, I believe, have contributed to the harsh debate of recent days. It is not the House as a whole but the majority - the Democratic Party - which sets the rules for the House. This has produced some rules which the Republicans have regarded as patently unfair.
In the 1980 elections, Republicans made major gains which they thought would translate into greater consideration for their views when the House began the new session in 1981. Yet, despite the 5:4 ratio of House Democrats to Republicans, Speaker O'Neill and the Democratic Caucus insisted on retaining a 3 :2 ratio on the Appropriations and Budget Committees, a more than 2:1 ratio on the Rules Committee, and a ratio of slightly less than 2:1 on the Ways and Means Committee.
Moreover, further rule changes imposed by the Democratic majority of individual committees permitted proxy votes on amendments to bills under consideration. As a result, members no longer need to be present at committee markup legislation and often are not. The chairman collects proxies on each amendment and the outcome is certain. The intended and actual effect of this rule change was to inhibit the ability of the Republican minority to get amendments through committee. A side effect has been the undermining of the committees themselves.
It is generally acknowledged that the best debate occurs in the smaller forum of the committee rather than in the whole House. Committee members know their issues and each other better. Therefore debates focus on issues and are friendlier. But given the cumulative impact of rule changes, Republicans despair of proposing significant initiatives in committee. They tend to await floor action to make their move. And it is on the floor that the sense of comity has broken down. For even here, the Republicans feel increasingly stymied by discriminatory rules, and frustration has turned to anger.
I would like to recommend a more bipartisan approach to setting the rules of the House. Ideally, a bipartisan commission should meet at the beginning of each session to recommend rule changes. At the very least, I would like to see the Democratic majority consult the members of the Republican minority on rule changes. And I would like to see the majority party impose a little self-restraint and not take full advantage of its position to squeeze every last advantage out of the rules. In particular, I would like to see the ratios and philosophical makeup of the committees reflect the balance of the House as a whole. I believe that these recommendations would help strengthen the committee system and restore a businesslike and friendly atmosphere to the House.
It would also help if President Reagan and Speaker O'Neill would bury the hatchet. The growing personal animosity between these two men is setting the tone for debate among Republicans and Democrats in the House. Perhaps this is impossible prior to November. But after November, President Reagan should invite Tip O'Neill to Camp David for a long weekend, during which these two should try to reestablish positive and friendly relations. Each would probably discover that the other is one of the nicest men in Washington. They should not be saying such bad things about each other. And the younger members of each party should follow suit.
No doubt my colleagues in the Democratic Party have some suggestions of their own. It is my firm belief that the majority of members on both sides of the aisle would like to reduce the level of tension and partisan clashes and get on with the business of the country. It is up to all of us to cool off, to sit down and talk and come up with some suggestions for restoring greater civility, tolerance, and pragmatism in our procedures. If not, not only members of the House but the country will suffer.