Congress tries to break fever of incivility amid string of vulgar, toxic exchanges


They live a mile apart in Columbus, Ohio.  And they shop in the same produce aisle at the same grocery store. U.S. Reps. Mike Carey, a Republican, and Joyce Beatty, a Democrat, often bump into each other at the airport and see each other around the neighborhood. Over glasses of orange juice and ice water in May, they even talked about the importance of being seen together at work, talking and planning.  

The two Ohio natives are trying to patch up a different community 400 miles away.

In the heat of one of the most political, toxic and uncivil moments in memory in the U.S. Congress, the pair is trying to keep the House of Representatives from slipping deeper into a bad-mannered, boorish body of government.

Carey, a second-term Republican endorsed by former President Donald Trump, and Beatty, a fifth-term congresswoman who once chaired the Congressional Black Caucus, have formed a congressional Civility Caucus, seeking to inspire a more civil discourse between the two parties. 

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File: Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., left, pulls Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., back as they talk with Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and others during the 14th round of voting for speaker as the House meets for the fourth day to try and elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington, Jan. 6, 2023.

Andrew Harnik / AP

But relations between Democrats and Republicans — and even within the GOP — have been deteriorating. This congressional session has seen a number of coarse and vulgar exchanges, misogynistic name calling, heckling, formal censure resolutions and one lawmaker putting another in a physical restraint during a 15-round vote for House Speaker in January.

“We can disagree, but you don’t have to be disagreeable,” said Carey, as he stood side-by-side with Beatty to speak with CBS News in the Cannon House Office Building. 

Beatty said, “It’s treating people well or how you would like to be treated. It’s calling people out, if necessary, but doing it with civility.”

The two have launched their effort with a series of joint speeches and meetings with business groups and political organizations. In May, in breakfast remarks before an audience of political staffers and policy wonks on Capitol Hill, Beatty and Carey described their efforts to meet and talk, in plain view, on the House floor during proceedings. Beatty said she’ll walk to the Republican side of the aisle to speak with Carey, with Carey making the same overture for meetings with her on the Democratic side. They do so openly and noticeably, she said, “which unfortunately, in today’s time might seem kind of rare. But we have decided to go with it and be visible with it.” 

Carey told CBS News the pair helped bridge gaps, and smooth friction, during the particularly divisive fight over raising the nation’s debt ceiling in May.  He said, “Joyce obviously was working with her (Democratic) members.  And I worked on my side. Then we, as (an Ohio) delegation came together and every single one of our members voted for it on the House side.”

The caucus has early commitments from at least 20 House members to join and participate. But members are only permitted to join as bipartisan pairs. Each person needs to find a partner from the opposite party.

The push for civility comes six months into a rancorous and uncivil first session of the 118th Congress. In June, Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene, Republican of Georgia, declined to answer CBS News questions about an incident in which she reportedly called colleague Rep. Lauren Boebert, Republican of Colorado, a “little b****” in a House floor dispute over dueling efforts to seek impeachments of figures in the administration of President Joe Biden.

In response to a question from CBS News about the tenor of House floor proceedings, Speaker Kevin McCarthy accused Democratic colleagues of a lack of civility during a June party-line vote to censure Rep. Adam Schiff, Democrat of California. Democrats shouted “disgrace,” “shame” and “McCarthyism” during the censure proceedings, proceedings which Democrats themselves argued lacked in civility and decorum.  

The marathon Jan. 15-round vote in which McCarthy was voted to be speaker, featured a string of heckles, screams, name-calling and – during one seminal moment – a Republican House member physically restraining a Republican colleague back from confronting another House member on the floor.

A recent survey of congressional staffers by the non-partisan Congressional Management Foundation showed both parties are eager for an end to the discourteousness that plagues some of the politics and hearings in Congress.  The group’s survey reported 87% of congressional staff agreed with the statement, “Congressional leadership should enforce the rules and norms of civility and decorum in Congress.”  

“The research is clear – civility and bipartisanship are absolutely necessary for a functioning Congress,” said Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation, which helps provide training and services to congressional offices. 

Carey and Beatty told CBS News they share meals and are planning dinners and nonwork get-togethers with colleagues to foster and create some of the relationships needed to transcend and break the fever of a divided and volatile politics in the 118th Congress. 

When pressed by CBS News for examples of their olive branches or approaches to civility, Beatty and Carey mention their joint speaking tour, ranging from business groups in their home city of Columbus and at Washington, D.C., political organizations, and they say they hope to speak with student groups, too, about the importance of civility.

Carey thinks his colleagues will still see an incentive in using coarse and fiery rhetoric, because uncivil words on the House floor can draw media coverage, donations and coveted attention from a party’s supporters.    As Carey told an audience during a speaking engagement with Beatty this past spring, “The people on the extremes seem to dominate the airwaves.”

The structure of the Civility Caucus is similar to another bipartisan effort in the U.S. House, the Problem  Solvers Caucus, an equally balanced bipartisan group formed in 2017 and led by Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, Republican of Pennsylvania, and Rep. Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey. The group is credited with helping negotiate and strengthen some of the larger bipartisan agreements during the past few Congresses, including the debt ceiling compromise, which averted a U.S. default on its debt. 

Carey believes civility can be modeled, even by colleagues who oppose each on other on a vote or legislation. He told CBS News, “We’re going come to different issues in different ways. We will see different pieces of legislation differently. But that doesn’t mean we don’t like each other.  We can be respectful of that. And so that’s what we’re trying to do.”

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