Kildee criticizes lack of civility in Congress
April 25, 2005 —
Congressman Dale Kildee proposed an interesting hypothetical question to his audience: Is the decline of civility in Congress reflective of the society it represents, or does the opposite hold true?
This and many other topics were brought up in the second annual James E. O'Neill, Jr. Memorial Lecture, given on April 11 in the Performing Arts Theater. Entitled "Civility in Politics," the longtime Democratic Congressman from Flint tried to give some reasons why he believed the hallowed chambers of Congress were becoming tainted with personal attacks that leave compromise and working on bipartisan issues difficult. Dale Kildee once served in the Michigan House with James O'Neill, the honorary of the night's lecture.
Kildee, who has served under six Presidents, believes civility means understanding that the opposing party wants what is best for the nation as well, they just have a different way of thinking. The personality of politicians goes a long way in crafting an aura of civility. The two presidents he believed acted most decently during his term as a congressman were Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican George H. W. Bush. Congressman Kildee told the packed hall that until recently, civility in politics took a cyclical path, rising and falling depending on the events of the time. He believes all of this changed in 1994, when Newt Gingrich and a Republican majority rose to power via their "Contract with America."
Many of these new members arriving in Congress believed that government was the problem, not the solution to America's ills. This disdain for the federal government culminated in the 1995 shutdown of the government, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich refused to compromise on the size of the budget, and a several week shutdown ensued.
"If government was the problem, some new members thought shutting it down was a good thing," Kildee said. Only after public reaction to the shutdown was decisively negative, did the shutdown end.
Kildee believes that for many of these new members of Congress, compromise was a sign of weakness. The minority party used to be included in the crafting of legislation; today it is all but shut out as the "majority of the majority," a majority of the ruling party, ends up ruling the House. However, he was quick to point out that it wasn't just the new members of Congress who were acting uncivil.
"The Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee called police to remove the Democrats from the committee room," Kildee said.
This unprecedented move essentially banned Democratic input on a very powerful House committee. Although the Chairman eventually apologized for his actions, it showed that the party in power was willing to disenfranchise a minority voice that nonetheless represented nearly one-half of the nation's population.
Congressman Kildee saved much of his rancor for Tom DeLay, the embattled House Majority Leader under fire for ethics violations and improprieties. Already called on by some House Republicans to resign his post, DeLay was earmarked by Kildee as the single largest impediment to civility in the House of Representatives. He ensured that in the wake of the 1998 Monica Lewinsky scandal involving President Clinton that House members could only vote whether to impeach, even though he was fully aware the Senate would never convict President Clinton. Even though many House members were leery of voting to impeach the President, DeLay refused to allow an amendment calling for the censure of President Clinton, a lighter reprimand Kildee would have supported.
Kildee also criticized President Bush for his rigid stance and inability to compromise within the White House. He had shown the ability to compromise with Democrats from his days as Texas Governor, according to Kildee, but upon becoming President, he has encouraged far-right leaders to take control of the House, and limit debate on many of the proposed bills.
To avoid having his speech sound simply like an out of power politician yearning for his return to power, Kildee said something he fears most is uncivil treatment by Democrats whenever they return to power. "Civility knows no party - I worry that if we [Democrats] take back the majority, we will be just as uncivil to them [Republicans]."
Above all else, Kildee wants to ensure that every representative has an equal chance of being heard, since they represent every citizen. To hear only conservative voices in Congress is an injustice to the millions of Americans who disagree with conservative opinions.
"Congress needs a wide spectrum of political thought, from conservative to liberal," he said. There are 435 members of Congress, not one."