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Editorial

Congress' widening aisle

The divisive tenor of our political campaigns has gone a long way toward increasing the partisan rancor on Capitol Hill.

January 21, 2011

We have no objection to the proposal that Republicans and Democrats sit together at President Obama's next State of the Union address. Mixed seating, first advocated by the centrist group Third Way, at the least would prevent a scene in which reaction to the president's speech differed dramatically from one side of the aisle to the other.

It's also welcome as a symbol of hoped-for post-Tucson bipartisanship (though it's no guarantee that some Republican won't say "You lie!" to Obama). Equally worthy are the other proposals offered by Third Way: bipartisan retreats for each house of Congress and visits by senators and representatives to the state or district of colleagues from the other party.

It's unlikely, however, that any of these innovations will end the corrosive and shrill partisanship that has characterized congressional discourse over the last decade. The reasons for the decline in across-the-aisle civility — and, more important, in cooperation on legislation — are many and difficult to overcome.

They include the outsize influence of interest groups on both legislation and debate; reapportionment that results in politically homogeneous districts; the determination by the minority party in Congress to demonize the majority party in hopes of regaining leadership; and, last and most important, the tenor of political campaigns. Even more poisonous than ads for which candidates take responsibility are the broadcasts by independent groups that typically end with an injunction to tell Candidate So-and-So to stop raiding the treasury, weakening the national defense or destroying American jobs.

It's not surprising that there is a backwash from the language of campaigns in the halls of Congress. A representative or senator who has been vilified by the other party on the campaign trail may find it hard to cooperate with colleagues from that party. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that even in the Senate, with its six-year terms, campaigns are now essentially permanent.

The enterprise of rebuilding bipartisanship and promoting civility is an admirable one. It shouldn't have taken the tragedy in Tucson to have concentrated the minds of at least some members of Congress on the importance of lowering their voices and reaching across the aisle. But for those resolutions to stick, they need to be enforced on the campaign trail as well as in the House and Senate chambers, regardless of their seating arrangements.

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