My old friend Randy Neely is a man with a quixotic vision. Randy sees a simple way to reduce partisan animosity and increase bipartisan cooperation. Instead of Democrats sitting on one side of their state or US capitol building, and Republicans on the other, Neely suggests a more integrated seating plan. He proposes that both parties sit together and commingle.
“They should try it,” Neely said. “Each party has its own caucus which meets regularly, so there’s no lack of meeting, communication and planning between party members.” Neely thinks random seating might lead to some positive interactions between members of different parties and common sense progress on big issues that interest the public.
This worthy and commendable idea is not entirely new or novel. In 2011, Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) suggested the parties integrate the seating during the State of the Union address. “It’s not a rule that parties have separate seating arrangements,” said Udall. “It’s just a custom.”
Udall’s suggestion came just months after U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) and 18 others were shot in a supermarket parking lot in Tucson, Arizona.
Dozens of members of Congress adopted a mixed seating arrangement during President Obama’s State of the Union address to symbolize a renewed commitment to civility and bipartisanship. Democrats staked out positions in Republican territory on the right side of the House chamber, while Republicans claimed seats among Democrats on the left.
Udall sat with conservative South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, while liberal Minnesota Sen. Al Franken joined conservative Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Other unlikely pairings included conservative Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn and liberal New York Sen. Chuck Schumer.
ABC News reported that the mixed seating plan created a prom-like atmosphere on Capitol Hill, with some members courting colleagues from across the aisle and asking them on “dates.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi arrived with Maryland Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, after declining a request by Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor to be his date.
Not all members of Congress played along. “More important than the appearance of sitting together is what we do together,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who did not cross the aisle for the State of the Union address. “The American people are more interested in actual accomplishments on a bipartisan basis . . . than they are with the seating arrangement . . . .”
In The Palm Beach Post (2/3/2019), “In Congress, let’s get rid of ‘the aisle’,” Gerald D. Skoning noted: “‘The Aisle’ is the centerpiece of the political divide in this country. It is emblematic of the bunker mentality of our political discourse, where party fanatics hunker down in their silos embracing their own echo journalism and turning a deaf ear to the opposition. The ‘aisle’ symbolizes and exacerbates the divisive tone of our political discourse.
“Politicians shouldn’t have to ‘reach across the aisle’ to engage in serious dialogue. The seating chart for both houses of Congress should be changed so that Republicans and Democrats are seated side-by-side instead of across the chamber, with their respective ‘tribes’.
“Under this rearrangement of the seating, members might be seated in the respective Congressional bodies by seniority instead of party. This would facilitate bipartisanship and . . . the opposition would be right at their elbow ready to engage in earnest discussion (or not) of the issues. Who knows, it might even facilitate an increase in collegiality which is sadly lacking among our lawmakers today.”
I wouldn’t want them seated by seniority as Skoning has suggested. Rather, a lottery machine would generate a random number for each member of Congress – odd numbers for Republicans and even numbers for Democrats. Each seat in the chamber would have a number, 1 through whatever. This seating lottery could compensate for lopsided numbers in the House and/or Senate. A new seating lottery would be held for each new session of Congress.
Can you imagine Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) sitting next to Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA)? What about Bernie Sander (D-VT) sitting next to Ted Cruz (R-TX)?
An integrated seating arrangement might not make Congress less combative and more productive, but such a show of togetherness might reduce the threats now facing Congress. According to The Hill (9/3/2022), “Violent threats against lawmakers have Congress on edge,” by Mike Lillis: “In recent years, the number of menacing threats against sitting members of Congress has ballooned, forcing the Capitol Police to launch thousands of investigations; prompting a flood of new funding for lawmaker security back home and in Washington; and impelling lawmakers to take remarkable precautions to ensure they don’t become the next target of political violence . . .
“Over the past half-decade, the number of threat investigations launched by the U.S. Capitol Police has skyrocketed, from 3,939 in 2017 to 9,625 in 2021 . . . .”
Democrats largely blame former president Donald Trump and his fiery rhetoric for the increase in threats against lawmakers. “We hear – you’ve heard it – more and more talk about violence as an acceptable political tool in this country. It’s not. It can never be an acceptable tool,” said President Joe Biden. He identified Trump and everyone who does not condemn violence as “a threat to democracy.” Trump supporters deny those allegations, calling them political attacks designed to hurt Trump’s chances of reclaiming the White House in 2024.
Regardless of who’s to blame, there is no denying the fact that threats against members of Congress have increased dramatically. A recent survey asked every member of Congress if they had received a death threat since 2020. About 75% said yes. 74% of Democrats said they had, compared with 77% of Republicans.
It was recently reported that, beginning August 15, the House sergeant-at-arms’ office would pay for installing and maintaining security equipment at the homes of congressional lawmakers. Up to $10,000 in upgrades, and $150 per month in monitoring fees, will be covered by the program.
According to ABC News, Rep. Liz Cheney spent $58,000 for protection in the first three months of 2021. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene spent nearly $183,000 on personal security in the early months of 2022 – more than any other person running for office this year.
Despite the extra security measures, an intruder broke into the San Francisco home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and whacked her husband, Paul Pelosi, 82, on the head with a hammer. The assailant, David Depape, is a devotee of QAnon and MAGA conspiracy theories.
Republicans such as Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Kevin McCarthy quickly denounced the violence, yet many still embrace the ideologies that motivate the violence. Of the 569 GOP candidates for statewide and federal office, 53% have denied the 2020 election results. At least 36 congressional candidates running in the 2022 midterm elections have shown support for QAnon.
We don’t segregate ourselves by party at work, in school, in stores or public places. Why should our elected representatives be different?
A recent poll (July 2022) puts Congress’ approval rating at just 17%. A small display of congressional civility wouldn’t hurt them any, I’m sure.