LEWISTON – “You lie!” U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-South Carolina, shouted at President Barack Obama during his State of the Union address in January.
“Baby killer!” U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, yelled at a colleague during floor debate on the health care reform legislation in March.
These famous exclamations, from the mouths of sitting congressmen, caught the country’s attention and raised millions for their campaign war chests.
But Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins say the behavior of some of their colleagues and the current political environment in Washington, D.C., is unacceptable.
“Frankly, at a time of turmoil and discontent, it’s all the more imperative that we contribute to a more civil discourse,” Snowe said in a recent interview. “We have to set a standard and understand that public service obligates us to a higher standard. Civility and disagreements should not be mutually exclusive.”
Though heated debate over the recently passed health care reform law lasted more than a year, the rhetoric has hit an all-time fever pitch of late. And it’s not only hot air: Harsh words are turning into real threats. During the past couple of days, at least three people have been arrested in separate incidents for making death threats to members of Congress — Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; and Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va.
“People are not going to agree on the issues, but that’s not what this is about,” Sen. Collins said.
“This is about being able to debate in a civil, respectful way, and lately it seems that Washington has lost that ability and it’s being reflected in the country as well, with sharp divisions and polarization,” she said. “It does not serve the American people well.”
Collins said she and a group of Democratic and Republican colleagues have scheduled a dinner next week when they return from a congressional break to discuss the issue of civility.
“I do not attack the motivations or criticize my colleagues personally, but rather stick to the issues,” she said. “But when you hear disrespectful comments on the House floor, in particular, where people yell out insults, that is completely unacceptable and it really needs to stop.”
Leaders from both parties must set a higher standard and talk to members about the power of their words, Collins said.
“The harsh rhetoric, the partisan gridlock, the lack of civility are serious problems,” she said. “It truly poses a threat to our ability to get anything done. I do think it starts at the top with the president, his administration, the leaders, both Democrat and Republican; each of us has a responsibility to set a better tone.”
Snowe said a recent poll showed nearly 80 percent of the public disapproves of Congress.
“You can have exchanges, but you don’t have to engage in name-calling,” she said. “I think (members) understand why people are upset and angry. The question is, how can we keep this within certain boundaries and norms so that we don’t set the wrong standard for children?”
Snowe pointed to the 24-hour news cycle and the perpetual campaigning by colleagues as a big part of the problem.
“It just heightens the tension and the anger and the wrath and it perpetuates it, so it’s very difficult,” she said.
“It’s just all about, it seems, the next election. People sense that and understand that (members) are not focusing on the job at hand, other than fighting about it and then taking it out across the country in various venues, rather than trying to solve problems,” Snowe said.
She said times have changed from when she was first elected to Congress in 1978.
“What is the goal of getting elected if it isn’t to solve problems, and in helping to solve problems, make the world better?” she asked.