WASHINGTON — Relations between congressional Democrats and Republicans are growing increasingly contentious, but possible solutions exist, including the relaunch of a civility and respect caucus, congressional experts and observers told OSV News.
A series of tense exchanges have occurred in this Congress between lawmakers on opposite sides of the aisle. In one such instance in July, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., showed what appeared to be explicit images of Hunter Biden, President Joe Biden’s son, during a hearing of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee. Greene was rebuked by Democrats on the committee for the display, and the younger Biden’s lawyer filed an ethics complaint against Greene for showcasing the images.
But there also have been internal party clashes. After the election of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, as House speaker bled over several days in January, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., had to be restrained as he confronted Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who cast a “present” vote in a round of voting, temporarily blocking McCarthy from the office. Greene also has clashed with members of her own party, and was recently booted from the hardline, right-wing House Freedom Caucus after a confrontation with caucus member Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo.
Some lawmakers have said it became more difficult to work across the aisle in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot, in which supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol complex in an effort to prevent the certification of Biden’s election. Some news reports described the climate in Congress in the weeks following the riot as “toxic.”
Asked about Greene’s display of the Hunter Biden images, Matthew Green, a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America in Washington who studies Congress and American elections, told OSV News that “disclosing that kind of personal information, or images of an individual who isn’t even on the committee to defend themselves is absolutely a violation of norms of conduct” at the Capitol.
“One could argue it is another example of how standards of conduct and communication particularly through social media have trickled into the way Congress operates,” Green said. “So your goal is to get attention, your goal is to get hits, your goal is to get likes, however you want to phrase it. So doing something like that generates the attention that you feel as a lawmaker is politically beneficial.”
Michael Thorning, director for structural democracy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, told OSV News the incident is “part of just a longer term trend toward a growing performative nature of serving in Congress.”
“I think there is a lot more focus today on building a following and celebrity and really trying to create these sort of viral moments,” Thorning said. “And so sometimes that could be doing something provocative, like showing photos, expressing anger, or trying to have a very cutting remark that will get attention and get shown on cable news and picked up and spread widely on social media.”
Thorning said that very often “the best way to do that is to sort of play on our partisan differences.”
The American public has become much more “exposed to the day-to-day workings” of Congress in recent decades, Thorning said, through mediums like cable news and social media.
“I think that increases the incentive for the members to try to get more attention in that way,” he said.
Catholic University’s Green said, “You can easily look back at times in Congress when things were not pleasant,” citing 19th-century debates over slavery and 20th-century accusations by Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin of supposed communist infiltration of the U.S. government as other low points in congressional discourse, so “it’s easy to overstate how nice things used to be.”
Thorning said, “I think we’re dealing with a situation where the frequency might be higher than we’ve dealt with certainly since the middle of the 20th century.”
Both Green and Thorning cited proposals by good government advocates to improve inter-party congressional discourse. One proposal is to create a shared common working space for lawmakers of both parties, instead of their usual single-party spaces, such as cloak rooms.
“It might seem kind of trite,” Green said of such proposals. “But it’s been tried in some state legislatures where basically you assign seats to lawmakers, forcing folks to sit with people of the opposite party. You don’t get to sit with your party and partisan friends; you need to sit with people you don’t know or where you might disagree with, and that might help open your minds and sort of induce more tolerance for those who disagree.”
“Members have much less connection to members from the other party, many fewer relationships across the aisle,” Thorning said. “And when you don’t know someone it’s fairly easy to demonize them, if you think you don’t have to work with them.”
Some such efforts are being made. In April, Reps. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, and Mike Carey, R-Ohio, relaunched the Congressional Civility and Respect Caucus, which they said will work to foster congressional discourse with those attributes.
Thorning noted that “there is an inherently performative nature to politics that I don’t think we should expect members of Congress to ignore because certainly whoever is challenging them in the next election is not going to ignore it either.”
“We want to try to achieve a healthy balance,” he said.
Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington. Follow her on Twitter @kgscanlon.
The Dialog provides readers news to your inbox with the Angelus e-newsletter. Sign up here for a free subscription to the Angelus.