Lawmakers re-launch civility caucus in time for Election Day

Two House lawmakers are re-launching the Congressional Civility Caucus just 46 days before Election Day. 

Reps. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), the co-chairmen of the new caucus, argue that if lawmakers are ever going to pass a budget, they have to first learn to stop being so nasty to one another. 

“We’re reaching kind of a tipping point,” Capito told The Hill. “If we don’t tip back the other way to hearing each other's concerns and voicing our concerns and voicing our opinions in a matter which is receptive to the other person, we’re not getting anything done. And people are tired of not getting anything done.”

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Cleaver also connected civility to productivity in Congress. 

“People will say to me, 'We need to have more bipartisanship,' and I disagree; we need to have a high level of civility,” he said. “It is only through how we treat each other that we will feel good enough and trusting enough to get into a bipartisan dialogue. I think very few people up here on this Hill are interested in going into another session of Congress without dealing with the issues that the American public most strongly cares about.”

The Civility Caucus, founded in 2005, claims just 14 members. The co-founders contrasted that to the Congressional Wine Caucus, which over 200 members have joined. A caucus is something like a club in Congress, but Capito and Cleaver don’t want theirs to be exclusive, so the two lawmakers are re-launching the Congressional Civility Caucus with a new focus on promoting the idea through social media, using a Facebook page and the Twitter hashtag#CapitolCivility.

Congressional approval hit an all-time low at 14 percent in polls last August, and has stayed there ever since, with both sides blaming the other for the state of legislative gridlock. That, plus the upcoming election, makes a return to civility all the more urgent, according to Capito and Cleaver.

In the past, the two colleagues have sought to lead by example, engaging in debates on the House floor in a manner that, as Cleaver put it, “we would not be embarrassed for our children to watch.”

They maintain there are more members interested in returning to an era of civility than let on. One obstacle, they said, is the idea that taking a principled stand means disrespecting the opposition.

“I’ve had Democrats who said, 'Look, I appreciate what you’re saying, what you’re doing, but I’ve got to reserve my right to speak out forcefully,' ” Cleaver said. 

“I know we can be passionate without being nasty,” he continued, citing his own recent speech to the Democratic National Convention as another example.

That's not to say Cleaver hasn't used some colorful and arguably uncivil phrases to get his opinion across.

One of his most memorable moments came last year, when he called the bipartisan deal to raise the debt limit a "Satan sandwich," adding later that it was "sugar-covered." Cleaver's criticism then was of both parties. He complained that "Democrats got nothing in this deal" by compromising with Republicans.

The final weeks before Election Day are likely to include some tough words from members of both parties. 

“The election sometimes brings out the worst in us as politicians,” Capito acknowledged, adding that the lame-duck session between November and January will also be very important. “Also, we have huge systemic problems, and post-presidential elections moving into January, this can’t be done on one side or the other.”

Expect to see Cleaver and Capito tweeting about the Civility Caucus on Friday. The re-launched caucus will face a big challenge immediately, as much of Congress heads home to continue campaigning before the election, and Cleaver and Capito urge their colleagues not to vilify the other party.

This story was updated at 9:41 a.m.