Congressmen Schiff, Bilbray not optimistic about civility on Capitol Hill

Congressman Adam Schiff of Burbank
Congressman Adam Schiff of Burbank Kitty Felde/KPCC

This week, dozens of Democrats sat alongside Republicans during the president’s State of the Union speech. But Southern California lawmakers says that’s unlikely to change the tone of the political debate.

Lawmakers had intended the symbolic gesture of sitting next to a member from across the aisle to foster more civility on Capitol Hill after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

But Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff of Burbank says it’s difficult to tone down political rhetoric at this point – especially in the House, where members run for re-election every other year. "The hardest thing," he says, "is that in an era of permanently closely divided government, where the Congress is always one election away from changing hands, both parties tend to look at it as a zero-sum game. Anything that benefits the other side necessarily takes away from their chances of staying in the majority or taking back the majority. And that’s a very hard dynamic to overcome."

Republican Congressman Brian Bilbray of San Diego says what he thinks Congress needs is more face-to-face debate. "It’s a lot harder to call somebody an SOB when you’re looking them in the eye to do it rather than looking down at a page that some staffer has written the words for you. I think we need to start finding our own words and communicating as people rather than reading speeches on the floor."

Bilbray says there could be a ratings bubble as well. "I think C-SPAN would be a heck of a lot more interesting and people would be a lot more encouraged by a dialogue between humans rather than a bunch of people reading up there."

Another suggestion floating around the halls of Congress: ban cellphones from the House floor. Members may e-mail and text on their mobile devices, including iPads. Phone calls are still forbidden in the House chamber.

Congress will have some time to reconsider its political dynamics. The House is in recess until February 7.

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