Former Congressman Ray LaHood argues a return to civility can make lawmakers more productive
“I do think it is about as acrimonious and as divided as we’ve had in a long time."
That's the take from former Republican Rep. Ray LaHood of Peoria when asked if he thinks the country is as polarized as it’s ever been.
The man known as a bipartisan leader and skilled mediator in a highly partisan environment has built his reputation around those assessments. His memoir is called ”Seeking Bipartisanship: My Life in Politics.” LaHood will be discussing civility and bipartisanship as keynote speaker of the League of Women Voters of McLean County annual fundraising event Tuesday in Bloomington.
LaHood co-wrote his memoir with Frank Mackaman, a historian, writer, and former staff member of the Dirksen Congressional Center in Pekin which is named for Rep. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who helped write and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, both landmark pieces of legislation during the civil rights movement. LaHood is now a senior advisor to the center.
The one-time U.S. Secretary of Transportation under President Obama says that the country has been through similar, tumultuous times in its history. LaHood points out that he grew up at a time when the country was divided over the Vietnam War and civil rights.
“I saw a very divided country and watched the assassination of a president, of a civil rights leader, of a president’s brother; beginning in politics watching the country divided over the first-time resignation of a president of the United States," he said.
LaHood also presided over the House impeachment trial of former President Clinton. The Senate failed to convict Clinton on either article of impeachment, and no members of the president's party voted against him. However, LaHood’s performance in leading the hearings was lauded by many in his party who briefly entertained the idea the congressman should become Speaker of the House. LaHood gives a positive review to the performance of his longtime friend, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, for his leadership of the most recent confirmation hearings for Ketanji Brown Jackson for the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I would give him an A-plus on his chairmanship of the proceedings of the Senate Judiciary Committee for the Supreme Court nominee, who now as a result of Senator Durbin’s leadership, will sit on the Supreme Court," LaHood said. “He did an extraordinary job. He allowed everyone to speak. He allowed everyone to say what they wanted to say. He acted decisively when it was needed when Republicans were trying to take control of the hearing; he didn’t allow that to happen, but they had their say.”
As one of the biggest ambassadors for the idea of civility and a return to the politics that recognizes the power of compromise, LaHood recently wrote an opinion piece that appeared in many newspapers across Illinois. It followed another round of congressional redistricting.
He saw the timing as an opportunity to urge voters to consider the values of Dirksen and his mentor, former House Minority Leader Bob Michel, amid today’s “polarized and vexing politics” as they considered who will serve as their voice in Washington.
He wrote, “Our challenge today calls for leaders who will campaign and govern in the style of Everett Dirksen and Bob Michel.”
Did he think it made a difference?
“You spark the idea that you can have disagreements but as long as they’re civil disagreements, it’s an opportunity for people to understand civil discourse,” he explains. “Given the opportunity to write about that, I do think it does have an impact.”
He agrees that there are many examples of extreme political division today, including the Jan. 6 insurrection, so selling a return to civility is a challenge. He points to other examples: several highly divisive Supreme Court nomination hearings in recent years, the low favorability ratings of the president, the heated debates during the pandemic over mask wearing and keeping kids in or out of school, and in highly acrimonious school board meetings across the country over curriculum, race and fights about classroom diversity and inclusion.
While a congressman, LaHood was the lead Republican organizer of the bipartisan House civility retreats for members and their families in 1997, 1999, and 2001. While LaHood admits they failed to produce the results he and others hoped for, he remains rooted in the belief that voters expect from their federal lawmakers, the kind of productivity seen by city councils, school boards and other elected leaders at the community-level.
His advice to getting there includes listening to each other and in his words, “Be willing to reach a consensus which means you have to be willing to accept the idea that compromise is not bad and in the end, the way that our country and communities have solved big problems is through compromise and consensus.”
One bright light on the return road to civility, LaHood believes, is the formation of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of nearly 60 House lawmakers from across the country committed to finding common ground on many of the key issues facing the nation. LaHood says once endorsed by the Problem Solvers Caucus, many bills are given more serious consideration including coronavirus relief legislation and most recently on providing more defense aid to help Ukraine fight Russian aggression.
“I think the fact that people talk about what they do, the fact that people pay attention to what they do, the fact that their proposals make it to the full House of Representatives means that they’re making a difference," LaHood said.
He also believes they’re a good model of civil discourse.
“I think it’s another opportunity where members of Congress come together with a shared view that if they work together, listen to one another, listen to each other, put good ideas out, reach consensus, that they can make a difference on important issues of the day.”
Media literacy can help. LaHood says social media allows for statements to be made without having to look someone in the face and he says legitimate media outlets need to help provide facts to brace against misinformation campaigns, often driven by people who put personal politics ahead of what is best for the country. And educating individuals about how to spot the spin or the fakes is important.
“The media that exists today has to really understand their role to make sure when they say something that it’s factual because there’s a lot of other political activity going on that doesn’t really face up to the reality of what’s going on,” LaHood said.