Guest Commentary | A call for elected officials to help restore civility to Congress
Late last month, Illinois Democrats and Gov. J.B. Pritzker enacted a new map defining the boundaries of central Illinois congressional districts for the next 10 years. Three districts cover territory within a 35-mile radius of Peoria — the 15th, 16th and 17th.
It was my privilege to represent large parts of this same area (then the 18th Congressional District) in the House of Representatives more than a decade ago. I have always thought that central Illinois is a special place when it comes to public service. Let me explain.
Among its historical collections, The Dirksen Congressional Center has preserved remarks delivered by this region’s then-Congressman Everett Dirksen in May 1948 on the floor of the House. It’s useful to recall them amid today’s polarized and vexing politics as we consider who we want to represent us in these new districts:
“Suppose that for a single month we made a diligent effort to make certain that in our disagreement, we would never be captious; that in our differences on principle, we would never show petulance; that in resolutely following our own abiding convictions on matters of fundamental policy, they would never be tainted by acrimony. Suppose we made a diligent effort to exemplify … humility and meekness and forbearance. … What a great moral force it would become in softening the dissidences of life and clarifying fundamental viewpoints. All this would redound so richly to the welfare of the world and of our own country.”
Words to live by.
My predecessor in the House, Robert H. Michel, represented central Illinois for nearly 40 years. He was my mentor. His storehouse of political wisdom knew no bounds.
“You know that raising the level of your voice doesn’t raise the level of discussion,” he would remind his colleagues. “You know that listening with care is better than talking in sound bites and thinking in slogans. You know that peaks of uncommon progress can be reached by paths of common courtesy.”
Bob believed that a public servant could be serious without being somber, tough without being mean, shrewd without being devious, witty without being malicious.
“It has always puzzled me that in Washington, we have no public vocabulary to describe civility, which I believe is among the highest public virtues,” Bob once said. “To be called ‘hard-nosed’ or a ‘gut-fighter’ or an ‘arm-twister’ is in some circles the highest of praise. But civility has no similar public vocabulary.”
Bob taught us by his example that the House floor should be a forum for reasoned debate among colleagues equal in dignity. He came to the House every day to do the work of the people — not to engage in ideological melodramas or political vendettas.
I decided not to run for re-election to my seat in the House of Representatives in 2008. I had spent 14 years there cultivating a civil, bipartisan approach to politics and problem-solving, but with scant success. The highlight was a series of four bipartisan civility retreats I had helped to organize over the course of a decade. Regrettably, these retreats could not overcome the enormous challenges posed by the partisan forces in the House. Sad to say, those forces have grown only stronger since then.
Our challenge today calls for leaders who will campaign and govern in the style of Everett Dirksen and Bob Michel. I hope those leaders come from the new 15th, 16th and 17th congressional districts of Illinois.
Ray LaHood, a Republican, served as representative of Illinois’ 18th Congressional District from 1995 to 2009. He was U.S. Secretary of Transportation from 2009 to 2013 under President Barack Obama.