NEW BRITAIN — With the Supreme Court’s healthcare reform decision driving public dialogue to a new level of acrimony, congressmen from opposing parties on Friday urged people to adopt a greater sense of civility during an event in New Britain.
U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut’s 5th District, and U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, a Republican from Illinois, told a group of about 80 people that they do disagree on issues. But despite those disagreements, the congressmen said they are working together as members of the Center Aisle Caucus to promote civil discourse in the nation’s Capital.
“Tim and I disagree on the healthcare bill, but we don’t yell at each other when we disagree,” Murphy said.
Murphy visited Johnson’s district in Champaign, Illinois last October and Johnson was returning the favor Friday by appearing at the Stanley Golf Course restaurant in New Britain for a visit with Murphy’s constituents.
Johnson, who spent several years in the Illinois legislature before his election to Congress, said the Congressional gym is one of the few places in Washington where a lawmaker can speak with members from the opposite party. On the House floor, Johnson said, there’s just “anger” and “division.”
And he’s had enough. Johnson said he is so frustrated with the dysfunction in Washington that he has decided to retire in a few weeks.
“It ain’t fun anymore. It is not enjoyable. It’s work. It’s agony. It’s painful,” Johnson said, adding that his job in Washington is “truly like banging your head against the wall.”
A man in the audience wanted to know if the fundraising pressure on members of Congress amplifies the partisan divide.
Both Murphy and Johnson agreed that it did.
“The unfortunate reality is that more people give money because they want to give against something, than they want to give for something,” Murphy said.
He said an email with a fundraising pitch criticizing the other party for a stance on an issue raises three times as much money as an email touting something you or your party did.
“So there is an immediate incentive to set up lines of combat,” Murphy said.
He opined that if there was public financing at the congressional level and candidates were less consumed with raising money, then he thinks “you’d get a lot of functionality back.” He said the rise in fundraising pretty much parallels the rise in partisanship.
When Murphy made the remarks he said didn’t assume Johnson would agree, but Johnson did so anyway, pointing out that he was one of the few Republicans who voted in favor of campaign finance reform. He said he agrees that increased need to raise money parallels the rise in “negativism” in Congress.
“I’m a lousy fundraiser. I haven’t lost an election in 44 years, but it ain’t because I’ve raised a lot of money,” Johnson said.
He said another contributing factor to the rise in partisanship has been the 24-hour news cycle and redistricting.
He said the only comments that get on television are when someone calls the president a liar or on the Democratic side calls a Republican a Nazi.
“Those are the things that make the news. This sort of thing doesn’t,” Johnson said, referring to their conversation Friday at the Stanley Golf Course.
In many states, redistricting creates districts where only a Republican or only a Democrat can win. In those districts the only way to victory is appealing to the base, Johnson said.
That’s why he and Murphy have trouble recruiting people to join the Center Aisle Caucus. Apparently, the word “center” causes problems for congress members who come from gerrymandered districts.
Johnson, who is retiring in the next few months, called Murphy, 38, a quality legislator. He said Murphy is the type of lawmaker who “transcends party lines.”
But don’t tell that to his Republican opponents in the U.S. Senate race.
“This whole charade represents everything people hate about Washington. Two career politicians engaging in a political smokescreen,” Corry Bliss, Linda McMahon’s campaign manager, said in a statement.
“Try as he might, Congressman Murphy can’t hide the fact that he voted with his party 98 percent of the time he has been in Washington. It’s going to take more than a made up caucus to convince Connecticut voters to ignore his hyper-partisan voting record,” Bliss added.
Johnson said he doesn’t know McMahon and didn’t have a conversation with her campaign, but he did call former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays, the other Republican vying for the U.S. Senate seat.
“I called Chris and let him know I was coming. He was very understanding,” Johnson said. “He’s a real gentleman, just like Chris Murphy is.”
Asked if he thought his visit would be used for political purposes, Johnson said, “I’m an American first, and Republican second.”
Murphy said just because he’s running for the U.S. Senate doesn’t mean he stops being a Congressman for his district.
“I haven’t given up on trying to do a good job and reach out across the aisle in the House of Representatives. This was really an effort to show people the cooperative efforts I’m working on,” Murphy said. “Today wasn’t about the campaign and politics.”