'Center Aisle' Civility

By David S. Broder
Sunday, December 11, 2005

Having bashed the House of Representatives in my last column -- for its ethical lapses and for its strangulation of genuine debate -- let me hasten to provide some good news about that part of Congress. A couple of self-described "gym rats" have taken the lead in an effort that could genuinely change and improve the tone of the place.

Steve Israel, a Democrat from Long Island, and Tim Johnson, a Republican from central Illinois, are fellow members of the Class of 2000 who became acquainted on treadmills in the House gym. Beyond their exercise, they seemingly had little in common:

Johnson, 59, is a veteran of the Illinois legislature who represents a largely rural district where President Bush won almost 6 out of 10 votes in 2004.

Israel, 47, is a former congressional staffer and local elected official with a diverse working-class constituency that is 25 percent minority. Bush lost his district by a wide margin.

On 12 key votes in the last Congress highlighted by the National Journal, Johnson and Israel split six times, disagreeing on such basic issues as tax cuts, Medicare drug benefits, restrictions on gun liability, and bans on cloning, "partial birth" abortions and same-sex marriages.

Yet, as Israel told me, he and Johnson discovered from their conversations in the gym that "we could have really interesting arguments about the issues -- and still remain civil -- while we'd go up to the floor and hear our colleagues screaming insults at each other."

Johnson, who for years has made dozens of random phone calls every day to his Illinois constituents, said that "the message I hear over and over from the folks back home is, 'You are the 435 most powerful people in Washington. Why do you act like third-graders? Why don't you ever find out what you agree on?' "

Their conversation became the spur for the formation earlier this year of what they call the Center Aisle Caucus, a forum for communication across party lines. In a few months the invited membership has grown to 47, roughly balanced between the parties. The founders say they have turned down some applicants, because -- as Israel put it -- "we don't want people who will put it on their rsum and then go out and act like flame-throwers on the floor."

At their first meeting, their effort was endorsed by two former leaders who embody the traits of mutual respect the Center Aislers want to encourage: former House speaker Tom Foley, a Democrat from Washington state, and former House minority leader Bob Michel, a Republican from Illinois.

Subsequent caucuses have featured political scientists and historians of Congress, and next year, Johnson said, the caucus will begin trying to identify issues where the members can see possibilities of agreement -- or at least of clarifying debate.

"We know that most Republicans and most Democrats will take different positions maybe 70 percent of the time," Johnson said. "But if we could find ways of at least talking about the other 30 percent, the country would be 100 percent better off than it is now."

The world "civility" comes up

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