A renewed call for Senate civility

It's billed as "the world's greatest deliberative body." But at a time when public polls routinely place the popularity of federal lawmakers in single digits, it's time to ask: What happened to the U.S. Senate?

That's a question that has troubled many, both inside and outside of Washington, for a long time. The dysfunction has reached such a low that a freshman senator named Ben Sasse of Nebraska recently made it the subject of his first speech on the Senate floor.

Hearing that it was his first speech might lead you to assume that Mr. Sasse was simply grandstanding — playing the part of a brash newcomer with big ambitions. Wrong. Mr. Sasse was in office for more than a year before he made his speech. Listening. Talking to other senators in private. Trying to diagnose the problem with some precision.

In doing do, Mr. Sasse was doing something that many lawmakers fail to do. He wasn't just talking the talk, as they say. He was walking the walk. For it is his contention that much of the problem with the Senate today can be traced to a failure to listen. To consider all points of view. To carefully and thoughtfully weigh all options before speaking up.

It's a sign of how bad things have become, institutionally speaking, that such a point needs to be made by any senator, let alone a self-described "newbie." After all, the Senate is supposed to be where the lofty, high-minded debate long considered the hallmark of representative democracy takes place.

Yet that's not how it has worked out in recent years. Far from it. "As our constituents know, something has gone awry here," Mr. Sasse said. "We — in recent decades — have allowed the short-termism of sound-bite culture to invade this chamber, and radically reduce so many debates to fact-free zones."

He noted the disconnect between how senators talk in private, where comity and fellowship is common, and how they talk in public, where mistrust and vituperation are the order of the day. We talk as if those who disagree with us are the enemy, not our fellow Americans with whom we have a difference of opinion.

It should be noted that partisanship is nothing new. As Mr. Sasse, a historian himself, notes, a quick survey of American history, from the election of 1800 and the Civil War through the civil rights movement, proves that we've been polarized before, and often quite deeply.

But there's something different about today's poisonous atmosphere. The electorate is more apt to be apathetic than angry. And lawmakers respond not with solutions but with partisan rhetoric.

As a result, we've witnessed the inevitable result of a legislative body that refuses to legislate: the growth of the administrative state. Put another way, lawmakers have turned much of their responsibilities over to unelected bureaucrats. According to Mr. Sasse, this "fourth branch of government is increasingly hollowing out the Article I branch, the legislature — and many in Congress have been complicit in this hollowing out of our own powers." 

Mr. Sasse's solution, however, is not for less fighting, but for what he calls "meaningful fighting." We need spirited debates, yes, but they should be marked with civility and substance.

It's a point that I once made in a commencement address to Hillsdale College. "If you want to grasp the nature of civility, try to imagine Lady Thatcher calling someone a "big fat idiot." You can't. Yet does anyone remember her as a politician who was afraid to speak her mind? Not even close. The Iron Lady left no doubt where she stood. But she always did so with grace and dignity.

As I told the students then, and I would add to the Senate now, "If we are to prevail as a free, self-governing people, we must first govern our tongues and our pens. Restoring civility to public discourse is not an option. It is a necessity." Thank you, Mr. Sasse, for reminding us of this fact.

-Ed Feulner is founder of the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Times