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Congress grows more polarized, less polite

By Dori Meinert

Copley News Service

2004-09-13


WASHINGTON - With partisan rancor at a high in this election season, House members seem to have given up any pretense of speaking politely to each other.

They've canceled the bipartisan "civility" retreat next January - due to a lack of interest.

"It's disappointing because I think the public wants us to work together," said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, who has worked with a Democratic counterpart to organize the previous four retreats. "The public wants us to solve the country's problems."

The cancellation of the retreat is but one example of the deep partisan divisions in Congress that congressional analysts say prevent meaningful policy debate and leave voters feeling manipulated and turned off by politics.

In June, Vice President Dick Cheney used the "F-word" during a testy exchange with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., on the Senate floor, where decorum traditionally reigns.

The same week, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., called Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., "an idiot" after hearing Cunningham make a remark about his father, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

Even House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Yorkville, who frequently describes himself as more of a "listener' than a "speaker," has launched harsh attacks this year against Bush administration critics.

The hot tempers reflect the high stakes in the November elections - whether Republicans will retain control of the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The increasingly negative discourse is hindering lawmakers' ability to do their work, congressional observers say.

Congress is less than two weeks away from the start of the new fiscal year, Oct. 1, and has completed just one of the 13 spending bills. It's increasingly likely that it will roll the rest into a bill that would continue current spending levels until early next year - much as it did last year.

Dozens of critical issues have been put on hold because the highly partisan atmosphere blocks efforts to resolve them. Even the politically popular highway reauthorization bill, which most people had earlier believed was assured passage in an election year, remains stalled.

"I've never seen anything worse than this," said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington of this year's display of partisanship. "It's embarrassingly bad."

Congressional analysts point to a variety of factors that have caused Congress to become increasingly polarized in recent years. Redistricting has produced fewer competitive seats, creating concentrations of like-minded voters. The media, particularly television talk shows, favor lawmakers who offer more extreme views.

Sean Theriault, an assistant professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, who is writing a book on congressional polarization, said party leaders in the House and the Senate are just more powerful than they were in the 1970s and 1980s.

"Even if members who are more moderate are elected to Congress, the parties don't allow them to flex their moderate muscles ... their options are severely restricted," said Theriault.

A study of congressional votes last year found Congress was more polarized than it has been in the 50 years that Congressional Quarterly has been analyzing party unity votes. The study found the average House Republican towed the party line 91 percent of the time 2003, while Democrats voted with their party 87 percent of the time. Senate Republicans voted the party position 94 percent of the time compared to 85 percent for the Democrats.

The Illinois congressional delegation is typically just as predictable in voting on the major issues. All but four of the 21 delegation members voted with their parties 90 percent or more of the time in 2003, according to Congressional Quarterly.

But the others weren't far behind. Retiring Rep. William Lipinski, D-Chicago, had the lowest "party unity" score, voting with Democratic leaders 77 percent of the time. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, voted with the Republican party 82 percent of the time, while Mark Kirk, R-Wilmette, scored 87 percent. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, voted with his fellow Democrats 84 percent of the time.

Johnson said that the comment he most frequently hears from constituents as he travels his large, diverse southern Illinois district, is: "Why can't you people get along with each other?"

"Every single issue has become a war of words and people tire of it. I tire of it ... neither party has a monopoly on virtue," said Johnson.

LaHood, who is seen as one of a shrinking number of Republican moderates in the House, voted with Republican leaders 90 percent of the time - up from 83 percent in 1999. LaHood attributes the increase to President Bush.

"I like President Bush very much and I support many of the initiatives that he's put forward," he said.

LaHood blamed the recent round of negativity on Democrats, who in last year's presidential primary criticized President Bush, "saying the most nasty, negative, vitriolic things I've every heard said about a sitting president."

But Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the deep divisions grew from the aggressively partisan approach that Newt Gingrich took when Republicans took control of the House in 1995.

While Senate rules give the minority party more voice than those in the House - one senator can hold up floor action with a filibuster - Durbin said he was disappointed that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., took the unprecedented step of campaigning against Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

"That was a low point. That had never been done before," Durbin said.

Hastert recently recalled how two now-retired Illinois House members - Republican leader Robert Michel and powerful Democrat Dan Rostenkowski - shared long car rides back home to Illinois, cementing their personal relationship.

Modern technology has allowed lawmakers to monitor floor proceedings from their offices, bringing them together on the House floor less often, Hastert said. "I think as we've become more modern ... as we have spent less time on the floor ... the place loses collegiality," Hastert told a National Press Club audience last month.

At an individual level, divisions occur because people don't want to listen to views that conflict with their own, said Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to conflict resolution. Gerson was hired to conduct the congressional retreats in 1997 and 1999.

"The rules of the election process are such that you've got to make your opponent look like Jack the Ripper and make yourself look like Jesus Christ," complained Gerzon.

The partisan bickering leaves voters confused and suspicious, contributing to lower voter turnout, said Adelaide Elm of Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that compiles information that voters can use to filter through the conflicting information they hear from candidates and the parties.

Voters can check candidates' positions and voting records on the group's Web site, www.vote-smart.org or by calling 1-888-VOTE-SMART. The group compiles special interest groups' ratings of members of Congress and issue positions of candidates.

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