By Daniel C. Vock
WASHINGTON — The tasks of reducing partisan rancor on Capitol Hill and making Congress run more smoothly were never going to be easy, but the prospect of a presidential impeachment makes those goals both harder to achieve and more important to get done, several experts told members of Congress Thursday.
“Impeachment is the most volatile, controversial thing. It’s going to turn this place upside down,” said Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois who presided over the impeachment proceedings of President Bill Clinton in 1998. “If I were where you are, I would avoid it like the plague. This place will never be the same if you go down that road.”
LaHood, who also served as transportation secretary in the Obama administration, said the potential impeachment of President Donald Trump would undermine the efforts of a special U.S. House committee that has been working for several months on ways to modernize Congress.
The committee has already made suggestions on how to improve basic operations in Congress. One recommendation, for example, calls on congressional bills to be formatted differently, so they are easier to read and understand.
Another proposes better – and more bipartisan – training of new members of Congress. Many of its suggestions include ways to improve technology used by Congress.
The committee is also considering how to make the budget and appropriations process more straightforward. Its meeting Thursday focused on ways to improve civility among members of Congress.
U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, an attorney who has been in Congress less than a year, told the panel that lawyers have had to confront many of the same problems with civility in their profession as lawmakers do.
Scanlon, D-5th District,, said lawmakers can take some cues from the professional standards for lawyers. Both are expected to “zealously advocate” on behalf of their constituents or clients, but neither should attack others who are advocating for a different viewpoint, she said.
Lawyers have found that stricter enforcement of rules – whether that means taking an oath of civility or creating peer review structures to monitor lawyers’ conduct – doesn’t work as well as training and mentoring programs, Scanlon added.
But LaHood said all of the committee’s work would be set aside if the House pursues impeachment, and the recommendations would have to wait until the next Congress begins in 2021.
Still, Jason Grumet, the president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, said the political climate made it even more important for the committee to pursue changes.
“Congress is under siege, in rooms all around here. The ability of Congress to handle these traumas and not break depends on this committee,” Grumet said. “You should be talking about this committee in terms of surviving an impeachment.”
Thursday’s meeting was the first time the panel met since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced that the chamber would start investigations to determine whether or not to impeach Trump over his attempts to enlist Ukraine’s president in efforts to discredit former Vice President Joe Biden, one of Trump’s chief rivals in the upcoming presidential election.
Still, the committee’s members remained mostly upbeat, despite the daunting task.
“Yes, a hearing about bipartisanship might feel like we’re going against the grain a little bit this week,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., “But this committee is unique because we focus on what we can do – not what we can’t do.”
Experts suggested several ways that Congress could increase civility among its members. Many of them were ways for lawmakers of different parties and regions to get to know each other better, outside of the public eye.
Those included holding bipartisan retreats, encouraging members to travel within the United States or abroad with each other on official business and changing Congress’ schedules to give members more time together.
Grumet from the Bipartisan Policy Center urged lawmakers to lift their ban on “earmarks,” the controversial projects that members of Congress picked for their districts. Grumet said letting lawmakers bargain over those pet projects would give them an incentive to negotiate with each other and support bipartisan legislation. But none of the lawmakers on the panel remarked on the idea.
Many of the root causes of the partisan polarization in Congress go back decades and, because they are based in bigger societal changes, they won’t be easily fixed, warned Jennifer Nicoll Victor, a George Mason University professor.
Political scientists who have studied state legislatures and Congress have found that polarization is closely correlated with income inequality, racial realignment in the wake of the civil rights movement and stricter campaign finance laws that make it harder for parties and PACs to raise money, Victor said.
On the other hand, she added, polarization is not closely tied with many of the culprits that the public often blames for it, such as skewed redistricting processes, controversial presidents or the changing media environment.
U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., said he saw how powerful parties once helped promote bipartisan cooperation. In 1990, the Democratic campaign committee that focused on U.S. House races refused to help a Democratic challenger to former Speaker Newt Gingrich, because the challenger criticized Gingrich for supporting a congressional pay raise.
The pay raise was a top priority for Democrats in Washington, and they agreed not to attack Republicans who supported it. Gingrich barely won the race but went on to become speaker of the U.S. House four years later.
“Now that wouldn’t matter today because some super PAC would come in and dwarf the party’s contribution,” Woodall said after the hearing. “But I do believe that parties have a moderating influence. So being a Republican and being partisan are not the same thing, just like being a Democrat and being a partisan are not the same thing.”
Daniel C. Vock is a Washington D.C.-based correspondent to the States Newsroom Project, which supports the Capital-Star.