Civility: If they try it, it might work

Posted on December 31, 2006

Civility? In Congress? Are they kidding? We sincerely hope not, and we applaud Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut for their attempt to bring an atmosphere of mutual respect and consideration to one of the nation's two legislative bodies. The idea was formulated after the Nov. 7 elections showed that many voters were upset with the gridlock and bickering in Washington. Thus, the idea behind the weekly breakfasts for senators - no aides and no news media - is that closer relationships between legislators of both parties will lead to less arguing and fewer delays in passing bills. "Voters would prefer that we act like grownups and work on big issues and not play partisan, kindergarten games," Alexander said. Alexander, who 40 years ago served as a staff member to Howard Baker Jr. when he was a senator, remembered that senators met for dinner regularly and often socialized on weekends. Members of opposing parties became friends and often worked well together on legislation. Alexander is a Republican, and Lieberman ran as an Independent after losing the Democratic primary in Connecticut. Liberman said on "Meet the Press" last month that he won re-election in part because he promised voters to "put progress and patriotism ahead of partisanship and polarization. If we fall back in a partisan conflict, Democrats are going to be rejected by the public next time just like Republicans were this time." Thank goodness legislators are beginning to understand why the public is so disenchanted with them. They were elected to do a job, not pander to special interests. Although the realities of politics mean they must do a certain amount of pandering to get re-elected, we are disillusioned and frustrated that they seem to have forgotten the important work they were elected to perform. Alexander and Lieberman recently co-signed a letter to all senators inviting them to the breakfasts. Some conservative and liberal senators already have said they will attend. "It's easier to work together if you know one another better," Alexander said later. "That's not brain surgery to figure that out." The two senators formed the plan after riding together on the Capitol subway to the Senate chamber one day after the election. They found they shared similar approaches for reducing the number of strained debates and inaction on key bills. The plan for the meetings involves, in addition to the meal and personal conversations, listening to a series of committee chairs and senior Republican members describe upcoming major bills. Time also is planned so each senator could talk briefly about his or her current work. While the idea has merit, we would encourage allowing some media access, lest the senators become too friendly and make deals out of the public eye. We acknowledge that politics really never has been a civil process, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be. We hope senators take these breakfasts seriously and start acting like adults - the responsible adults we elected to do the nation's business.