How to curtail the tradition of violence between members of Congress

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This past week saw two publicly reported incidents of violence or invitations to violence on Capitol Hill. A NPR reporter witnessed former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) shoving Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) in a hallway, leading to a chase and what likely will be euphemistically described as a heated discussion. In the upper chamber, Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), a former mixed martial arts fighter, challenged a witness to fight right there in the hearing room and stood up as if to begin an altercation in front of the assembled body. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a voice of reason, put a stop to it. 

Violence between members is not unknown to a modern Congress. Then-Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) put a knife to the throat of now-former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in a debate over earmarks. Young admitted to routinely carrying the 10-inch knife on the House floor. Reps. Jim Moran (D-Va.) and Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) got into a fight on the House floor in 1995. 

Violence is likewise an unfortunate tradition in the halls of Congress. According to Yale historian Joanne Freeman, between 1830 and 1860 alone, there were at least 70 violent incidents between congressmen in chambers or in the streets nearby. Much of the violence was sectional, aimed by pro-slavery members at their anti-slavery counterparts for the purpose of preventing anti-slavery members from bringing up legislation. In other words, it was used to silence their opponents. The violence took many forms including canings, duels, fistfights, brandished pistols and wild melees.

It wasn’t just individual violence, but group violence. Imagine gangs of members of Congress laying in wait for their political opponents outside the halls of Congress.

How bad did it get? According to professor Freeman, in the 1850s, two Whig members calculated that one-third of the members of the House were armed. Should a scuffle start, some thought people outside the Capitol would be brought in and cause bloodshed. On Feb. 6, 1858, there was a “battle-royal in the House,” in the words of former congressman and future Confederacy VP Alexander Stephens with members fighting in the open space before the Speaker’s chair. 

Several factors made violence more likely. Strongly held views based on regional differences on key matters that relate to the exercise of power. A nonpartisan press covering congressional proceedings and fast dissemination of information, which made it impossible to say one thing to your colleagues and another to your constituents. Lengthy legislative sessions that frayed nerves. The resort to bullying. Access to weapons. Acceptance of violence. A culture of grievance.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Members of Congress both reflect the society around them and also act performatively to represent what they think their constituents want to see. Congressional leadership can forestall a return to this violent, downward spiral, but to do so they must:

Help Members feel safe. Congress should continue efforts to professionalize and modernize the U.S. Capitol Police, which can reduce or ameliorate some of the external threats of violence. It should also consider requiring members to go through the metal detectors upon entry to the capitol complex, just like everyone else, and to prohibit firearms and other deadly weapons from being brought inside.

Hold misbehavior accountable. Members of Congress should treat each other, their staff, the press, and their constituents with courtesy and respect. Each party should do more to hold their own members accountable for their behavior and to identify when they misbehave. Should the parties fail to do so, the Ethics Committees should be empowered and encouraged to step in. From day one, the chamber and parties should be responsible for socializing the members on how to productively and collaboratively engage with one another, including across party lines. In pursuing these purposes, members nonetheless must be encouraged to engage in vigorous debate. 

Improve member productivity. Over the last few decades, the House of Representatives has pulled power into the hands of leadership, making the day-to-day role of most members less impactful. In the Senate, the filibuster has made it hard for members to move most of their legislative priorities. Members who do not find a pathway to promote themselves internally will find external mechanisms for doing so. We should consider how to reopen pathways for members to find it worthwhile to invest in their congressional career. 

Address the big picture. The factors that increase bullying and violence in Congress are closely related to the factors that increase bullying and violence in our society. Congress is responsible for addressing many of those societal issues. 

Violence and bullying has no place in Congress. By taking steps to curb violence and bullying, hold members accountable, and create an environment focused on robust debate and productive collaboration, Congress can stop the downward spiral and stop the violence before it gets worse.

Daniel Schuman is director of governance at POPVOX Foundation.

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