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Civility in 116th Congress not off to a great start so far

House speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who will lead the 116th Congress as Speaker of the House is handed the gavel by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
House speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who will lead the 116th Congress as Speaker of the House is handed the gavel by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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As the 116th Congress was sworn in Thursday, about a quarter of government offices were shut down, 800,000 federal employees were furloughed or working without pay, Senate Republicans were publicly sparring over President Donald Trump’s character, the incoming House speaker was discussing the prospect of indicting a sitting president, and Trump was attacking a potential 2020 challenger on Twitter.

In other words, it was just another morning in America in 2019.

Any hope that a bitter midterm election campaign would give way to a less contentious Capitol once the dust settled has been dashed by insults, angry tweets, allegations of election fraud, and ultimately a partial government shutdown over funding for a border wall.

As the shutdown nears the end of its second week, Republicans and Democrats are pointing fingers at each other and little progress has been made toward a compromise amenable to both sides. House Democrats planned to pass bills Thursday that would reopen the affected agencies, but Senate Republicans and the president have already rejected their proposed solution.

“I think divided government always intensifies policy debates. When you have a polarized political system and you have those intensified policy debates, it becomes more difficult to respond to each other in civil tones,” said Cornell Clayton, co-editor of “Civility and Democracy in America” and director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University.

New House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in an interview aired on NBC’s “Today” Thursday President Trump is difficult to negotiate with because he “resists science, evidence, data, truth,” and she insisted there is nothing he can say that will convince her to provide money for a wall.

The wall is only one area of conflict between the president and the new Democratic House majority. Lawmakers have already laid out numerous investigations they want to conduct of Trump and his administration once they can convene hearings and wield subpoena power. Trump has dismissed such oversight as “presidential harassment.”

Pressed by NBC anchor Savannah Guthrie, Pelosi said it is “an open discussion” whether Trump can be indicted while in office, and she declined to rule out the prospect of impeachment, especially if special counsel Robert Mueller uncovers evidence that justifies it in his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

"We have to wait and see what happens with the Mueller report," she said. "We shouldn't be impeaching for a political reason, and we shouldn't avoid impeachment for a political reason."

In her opening remarks on the House floor Thursday, Pelosi struck a more unifying tone, perhaps offering an overly optimistic assessment of the ability of the new Congress to overcome acrimony.

“I pledge that this Congress will be transparent, bipartisan and unifying; that we will seek to reach across the aisle in this Chamber and across the divisions in this great nation,” she said after accepting the gavel.

For his part, Trump has so far been atypically restrained in taking on Pelosi personally, but he has had characteristically harsh words for the rest of her party in recent days, blaming Democrats for the shutdown and for the deaths of children in Border Patrol custody.

“One thing has now been proven. The Democrats do not care about Open Borders and all of the crime and drugs that Open Borders bring!” he tweeted Tuesday.

Experts acknowledge the level of civility in American politics has been worse at other times in the nation’s history, in the days when lawmakers engaged in duels to the death and the country devolved into secession and war.

“We try to be careful about overstepping this line of making this moment the worst, the pinnacle. We literally had a civil war,” said Tim Shaffer, a principal research specialist with the National Institute for Civil Discourse who teaches at Kansas State University.

By recent standards, though, there is a general sense things have gotten pretty bad.

“The words are there, the ceremony’s there, the gavel’s there, all of the trappings, but something has fundamentally changed about how discourse happens,” said Jeff Coleman, a former GOP Pennsylvania state legislator and author of “With All Due Respect: Recovering the Manners and Civility of Political Content.” “The premise of coming to work in a legislative body to get to an answer that will require principled compromise... that premise has eroded significantly.”

The spread of social media and a growing tendency of Americans to seek out only voices that agree with them have amplified an air of division and hostility.

“The role of social media has made our exposure to angry political debate much more pronounced. We’re exposed to it on a daily basis,” Clayton said.

According to Coleman, members of both parties face difficult choices at the moment because their bases want to see this kind of bare-knuckle politics.

“The question I think for the Democrats is, if you’re running for national office, are you willing to be mean enough?... For Republicans, are you willing to continue to fight the kind of politics the president introduced? For many, the answer has been, ‘Well, we’re winning, aren’t we?”” he said.

As a result, they risk squandering a chance to set a new tone in Washington.

“There’s a little window of opportunity in the first few weeks when friendships and relationships are being formed between new members. It’s probably the only time the possibility resides that things can be different because there’s a huge freshman class,” Coleman said.

Shaffer also highlighted the large, diverse new group of lawmakers who could usher in a period of governing instead of politicking, campaigning, and infighting.

“This is the moment,” he said. “This is when, in the best of worlds, we see the possibility of what can be done.”

The results, so far, are not promising. Shaffer observed several Republicans booed Thursday when freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., a frequent target of right wing ire, cast her vote for Pelosi as speaker.

“To me, it felt like in some ways that embodied the feeling that is going to continue for the time being, that if we still play politics as a game, that we have a team mentality, we’re really entrenched in that,” he said.

Tensions are already flaring within the Republican Party as well. Two of President Trump’s most prominent Republican sparring partners, Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, have retired from the Senate, but incoming Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah adopted that mantle before even being sworn in with an unexpected broadside against Trump in a Washington Post op-ed Tuesday.

“With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring,” Romney wrote, slamming Trump’s leadership at home and abroad.

According to The New York Times, Romney’s intent in penning the op-ed was partly to lay out a definitive statement on Trump that he could point back to in the future rather than commenting every time the president does something he objects to. Romney told CNN he only plans to speak out against Trump on issues of “great significance.”

“If the president were to say things that were of a divisive of a significant nature that I would call him out on that, and I have by the way—with regards to Charlottesville, attacks on the media, the Roy Moore endorsement, the Khashoggi approach—I've continued to point out places where we're different and that's the great thing about our representative democracy," Romney said on Capitol Hill Thursday.

That stance may not be enough to satisfy Trump allies, including Romney’s niece and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who slammed his words as “disappointing and unproductive.” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., accused Romney of “virtue signaling” and misjudging Republicans’ support for criticism of the president.

“I just don’t think it serves any usefulness for Republican senators to be out there attacking the character of the president,” Paul told reporters Wednesday. “How the president presents himself is up to him, but I don’t think it does anyone any good to be running around saying: ‘I’m holier than thou, look at me.’”

However, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, suggested Thursday Romney’s position is less adversarial toward Trump than some have made it out to be.

“My focus has been legislation and getting things done,” Portman said. “I speak out when I disagree with the president and I also speak out when I agree with him. That’s basically what Mitt said in his op-ed he’s going to do. That’s appropriate. That’s our job.”

The tone of politics seems poised to get worse before it gets better. Beyond the prospect of a prolonged partial shutdown over border wall funding, there are several events on the horizon that are certain to raise the temperature in Washington. In the months ahead, President Trump may face a confluence of the end of Robert Mueller’s investigation, the start of the 2020 presidential campaign, and increased scrutiny of the administration by Congress.

“Assuming that Trump, under siege by Mueller and the House Democrats, will set the pace, it’s hard to expect much more than vitriol,” said Robert Mann, a former Senate press secretary and a professor at Louisiana State University. “Toss in about 20 Democrats running for the White House with incentive to attack Trump and we may be in for a rough ride. And that’s before we’ve even mentioned what any possible impeachment hearings in the House might spark.”

The 2020 election campaign is already shifting into gear. Earlier this week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., announced the formation of an exploratory committee for her run. Trump has said he would be eager to run against Warren, whose claim of Native American heritage he frequently mocks.

On Thursday morning, Trump shared a meme on Twitter from a conservative news site deriding DNA test results that showed Warren may only have a small fraction of Native American blood. That tweet is only a taste of what lies ahead.

“We literally have just finished an election cycle and we immediately have pivoted to the next, which is going to be even more consuming,” Shaffer said.

Trump is not the cause of incivility in modern politics, but experts say his rhetoric has greatly exacerbated it. While Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama were frequently subjected to vitriol and insults from their opponents, Trump seems to take pride in responding to critics in similarly vitriolic ways.

“’General’ McChrystal got fired like a dog by Obama. Last assignment a total bust. Known for big, dumb mouth. Hillary lover!” he tweeted this week in response to critical comments by retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

“It feels to me like it can only go down from here. Trump being Trump, I see no hope for the tone improving in Washington until he is gone,” Mann said.

This may be true on a national level, but others are seeing sparks of what post-Trump politics could look like at the local and state level. Shaffer spoke recently with members of the Kansas legislature seeking ways to overcome dysfunction and division there.

“There is a lot of interest I think in local politics because it’s also a level where politics becomes really practical,” he said.

Coleman has seen a growing recognition of the moral and legislative power that rests in city and state governments, and with it, an opportunity for a more civil approach to politics may emerge.

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“I don’t think anyone believes this can be the permanent way that we approach politics,” Coleman said. “We know there is an end date to the Trump administration. It’s what comes after that that I think is so important.”

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