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That ‘all politics is personal’ cuts both ways 

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.)
Greg Nash
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) addresses reporters during a press conference on Wednesday, January 25, 2023 to discuss Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) rejecting the assignments of Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) to the House Intelligence Committee.

Former House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, Jr. (D-Mass.) is often credited with observing that “all politics is local.”  Relatedly, “all politics is personal.” The art of governing is people interacting with people to get things done — whether it’s members of Congress interacting with their constituents on local problems or with their House colleagues on national legislation. 

But personal politics has a downside, a negative side when people attack other people personally for political purposes. It is what “wronged” politicians invariably call, “the politics of personal destruction.” 

This latter meaning has been rattling around in my mind in recent weeks as I witness House members “getting personal” with their colleagues in a nasty sense of the term. This uptick in personality clashes, both in committees and on the floor, runs dangerously contrary to the basic rules of “decorum and debate” on which the institution depends to function in an orderly and productive manner. 

It would be easy to pin the tail on the elephant or the donkey as primarily responsible for this new nastiness. But from my somewhat removed vantage point, both sides seem to be doing it in a tit-for-tat fashion. Republicans came into this 118th Congress with a chip on their shoulders from the way they were treated by majority Democrats in the preceding Congress – from being shut-out of (or off-of) committees and being shut down on the floor.  

Democrats came in with their own shoulder chips, smarting over their loss of power and resenting the new majority for its perceived arrogant tone and agenda. It has all devolved into what I would call a 3-V movie of vituperation, vindictiveness and vendetta. And we’re only a month into the new Congress.   

The multi-day, multi-ballot marathon to elect a Speaker didn’t help, though that was entirely due to internal divisions in Republican ranks. But it did set back getting committees elected and organized. In the meantime, it seemed the House was operating in the lawless Old West, with everyone for themself and against everyone else. 

I would like to think this is all a temporary aberration and that things will settle down once members get into their committee responsibilities. But I’m not counting on it. As I told a colleague recently, it’s as if members skipped their orientation week at the beginning in which they would have learned the norms of Congress and how to play well with others. There is certainly evidence of considerable disorientation. 

I have reopened my “House Rules and Manual” to the wise counsel of Thomas Jefferson on “Order in Debate” in his “Manual of Parliamentary Practice,” and to House Rule XVII on “Decorum and Debate.”  They both contain the same basic tenets drawn from the British Parliament’s precedents.   

Members should address themselves to the chair and not directly to each other.  This is to maintain a safe buffer zone between opposing parties. Members should confine themselves to the question under debate, and avoid engaging in personalities, including not accusing another member of lying, hypocrisy, conflicts of interest or ulterior motives. The same rules apply in committees. 

I will not name names, point fingers, or cite specific examples of improper conduct I have observed. Suffice to say, even by my non-scientific, random observations, it is clear the frequency and degree of nastiness have noticeably accelerated from the last Congress. In the House chamber, the acting Speaker pro tempore has been kept more than busy every day (with promptings from the Parliamentarian) in calling members to order for crossing one line or another of acceptable behavior. 

My first day working on the Hill, Jan. 20, 1969, coincided with President Richard Nixon’s first inauguration. Having observed from afar our country tearing itself apart in the late 1960s, with urban riots and anti-war protests, one of the things Nixon said in his inaugural address that stuck with me ever since was this: “To lower our voices would be a simple thing….We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another –— until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.” 

While today may not be as tumultuous as matters were a half-century ago, there is no question the country is deeply divided and people both inside and outside the nation’s capital are again shouting at each other. Congress is capable of setting an example in one of two ways — either by pulling together or by pulling our nation farther apart. 

In addressing a group of Ivy League undergraduates in 1901 at his Sagamore home in New York, then Vice President Theodore Roosevelt offered a very simple piece of wisdom: “The most practical kind of politics is the politics of decency.” We have already seen how impractical the opposite is in getting anything worthwhile done. The House would be well advised at this early stage of the new Congress to reverse course and find a better way of doing things. 

Don Wolfensberger is a Congress Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of, “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.”  The views expressed are solely his own.    

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