Restoring civility to the Capitol
© Getty Images

Ask anyone how things have changed on Capitol Hill since the halcyon days of President Reagan, and you will get an earful of nostalgia. Honest observers will tell you that Congress, as an institution, used to be better in a kinder, gentler sort of way. They will reminisce over the comity and civility that permeated both Houses up to and including the Reagan presidency. And they will lament that the mood and the modus operandi of the Capitol were sanguine before the "Contract With America."

ADVERTISEMENT

Of course, times have changed too. Gone are the days when no one special could drive up to the Capitol from Independence or Constitution, drop off an earnest passenger on the East Front steps, and exit unhampered to the House or Senate side. Gone too, are the days when visitors from any state could spend the better part of a day strolling the Rotunda's Statuary Hall, reflecting on the contributions of one bronzed patriot after another. I remember the ease at which my bride and I could picnic on the West Capitol lawn or stroll the grounds on moonlit August nights. But those Capitol times are gone forever.

Long before Sept. 11, our lives as Americans began to change, and so too had Capitol life. Countless security breaches, attempted bombings, tragic shootings and then 9-11 slowly converged to close a chapter on a once open and inviolate Capitol. It is hard to walk past the barricades today without remembering America's innocence, and even harder to explain to our children the glasnost we took for granted back then.

Aside from our loss of security and physical freedom, something else has changed since the Reagan days in Washington. Although they may be wealthier and better educated, the voices of Congress are harsher. The debate is more shrill, and the partisanship more palpable. Political wounds from the opposite side of the aisle rarely heal, and policy differences die longer deaths. Statesmanship — once virtuous — has given ground to cynicism. And agreements to disagree among members have gone the way of 59 cents-a-gallon gas.

With such division among the ranks, it was not long until the staff and workers got into the act. Litigation, including class action claims, from the federal fraternity emerged on issues from civil rights to unfair labor practices. The familial feel that once permeated the Capitol receded in favor of steely professionals with short memories and even shorter tempers. Taking their cues from members, or maybe party leaders, even staffers are less collegial, although most are young professionals with small bank accounts and big dreams.

It will be hard to undo the incivility that has come to characterize our latter-day Congress. Left to their own devices, members appear unable to rise above the fray long enough to recognize the long-term damage they are doing to the institution and to its constitutional mission. The spoils of the majority and the fundraising stakes are too high for across-the-aisle congeniality. The reputation of Congress among the American people continues to slip further. While there is no dearth of candidates to contest congressional seats, there is a dirge of confidence in those candidates.

And it is there where the new president can play a unique and unifying role, for it will take the leadership of a strong but sentient executive to restore civility to the Capitol. We thought President George W. Bush could have done so when, as a candidate, he promised to get past the "politics of personal destruction" and be a "uniter, not a divider." But that did not happen. President Obama rekindled hope when he promised to be the "change that we seek." But that was waylaid early on through bilateral partisanship of a new, digital order.

As the nation slogs through presidential primaries and prepares for party conventions, we appear destined for another summer of discontent. The demagoguery in Congress reflects divisions in the making for decades, and cannot — will not — be undone overnight. Whether Obama's Supreme Court nominee receives a hearing is but the latest backslide from the lofty ideals of Article I.

Today, we are on the doorstep of spring, with Easter and Passover ascendant. Yet despite bleak and bitter campaigns on both sides, Americans of every faith are praying for leaders to repair and restore our nation. They are looking for leaders who will engage, rather than enrage, their opponents, both at home and abroad. And they are counting on a Congress that does the people's business with dignity, despite its differences.

All of this may be much too much to expect. We may not get a shining city on the hill. We may not get consensus on the big issues of the day. We not even get past the brawls and bluster of political rallies. But in a season earmarked by redemption and revival, our country sure could use some old-fashioned saving grace.

Hoffman is chairman of Business in the Public Interest and the author of "Doing Good: The New Rules of Corporate Responsibility, Conscience and Character."