Celebrating Civility in 2017

Betsy Wright Hawkings
December 19, 2017

At a time when some are uncertain about the strength of our democracy, organizations supported by Democracy Fund give me reason to feel grateful, and hopeful.

Along with the Hewlett Foundation’s Madison Initiative, Democracy Fund’s Governance Program is not only seeing increasingly robust programming by our grantees, but also more of them working together to coordinate and maximize the impact of their efforts to support congressional function.

Before Thanksgiving, the National Institute for Civil Discourse – a model for collaboration – developed a “Setting the Table for Civility” initiative as part of their Revive Civility campaign. In the wake of the bipartisan response to the shooting of Majority Whip Steve Scalise and other members of Congress during practice for the Annual Congressional Baseball game, NICD and the Faith and Politics Institute developed a series of videos by Members of Congress noting their ability to work together; a highlight is Republican Whip Steve Scalise and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer discussing ways they find to “disagree without being disagreeable.”

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, working with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, has developed the Staff Up Congress initiative to strengthen and diversify the pipeline of senior staff working in the House and Senate. If it is true that Congress will be more responsive to the American people when it better reflects the perspectives and backgrounds of ALL Americans, then this initiative can help ensure a Congress that not only better serves our country, but in doing so also helps make our discourse more civil and respectful of others’ differences.

(L) Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Arturo Vargas, (R) Rep. Barbara Lee at Staff Up Congress event.
(L) Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Arturo Vargas, (R) Rep. Barbara Lee at Staff Up Congress event.

And who says campaign operatives cannot get along – or even agree? At the University of Chicago School of Public Service this fall, digital strategists working to elect both Democrats and Republicans came together to discuss how social media has changed democracy and came to a very civil agreement on best practices in social media campaigning.

Members of the Freshman class of 2017 committed to each other during the New Member orientation in Williamsburg in January that they would continue to reach across the aisle and work together on a bipartisan basis to get things done for the country despite their differences. They felt that this was the message of the 2016 election and that they needed to make a commitment to each other to not allow the forces of partisanship pull them apart once they were actively serving in Washington. They have maintained this commitment, through their “Summer of Civility” and most recently with their holiday “Civility Pledge.

The R Street Institute, through its Legislative Capacity Working Group, along with Protect Democracy, StandUpRepublic, and others, is working to promote regular legislative order and amplify efforts to strengthen Congress as the institution established by Article One of our Constitution.On the same day TIME Magazine celebrated “Silence Breakers” as the Person of the Year, former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson was partnering with a bipartisan group of legislators to introduce bipartisan legislation to strengthen the congressional offices of Compliance and Employment Counsel.

Congressional Accountability Hearing
Photo from the Congressional Accountability Hearing

The efforts of the working group, the Women’s Congressional Policy Institute and the bipartisan “Joint Session” women chiefs of staff group, and others, was evident in the wake of the sexual harassment revelations on Capitol Hill.The relationships developed through this and other bipartisan programming helped both members and chiefs reach across the aisle and work toward a responsible, bipartisan reaction to the exposure of outdated processes and lax outreach and disclosure by the Office of Compliance. Together, they are working with the House Administration Committee to support development of credible legislation to better support Hill offices and the institution of Congress as a whole.What do all of these organizations have in common? As we note in our systems map, a key component of increased congressional function is breaking down hyper-partisanship, intolerance, and anger so that the sharing of ideas and civil discourse can occur; this is the first step toward a more functional legislative process and, ultimately, a higher-performing Congress.

While the institution still faces many challenges and much much more work lies ahead, this commitment to working across partisan lines to support increased civility and helping the institution work better – not just for those who serve there but for all Americans – is a key focus of Democracy Fund’s Governance Program. As 2017 comes to a close and we look toward 2018, we see signs of hope, and are grateful for our partnership with the Hewlett Foundation Madison Initiative and others to support the good work of so many organizations promoting this essential quality of a more effective government of, by and for the people.

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