The House of Representatives is about to do something that could be good for the country and for itself.
On March 16, in prime time, the House will hold the first of a projected series of formal debates on issues of national importance, with a format designed to let viewers see broad policy questions intelligently argued.
The first will focus on health care _ a topic on which the public has clearly signaled the need for more information and sensible discussion.
We'll see what we get when the C-SPAN cameras bring the 90-minute debate into our homes, but the purpose is to go beyond the slogans and sound bites that make up much too much of the political dialogue in the country.
This experiment comes at a time when members of Congress recognize that their reputation in the country has rarely been lower. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll showed only 32 percent of the people approving the job Congress is doing.
There are many reasons for that, but one of them clearly is the inability of Congress to communicate the impression that it is a place where serious issues are dealt with seriously.
C-SPAN, the fine public service arm of the cable industry, does an admirable job of bringing House and Senate debates to its audience of 60-million subscribers. But those debates generally are framed around particular pieces of legislation, and that limits their value to a broad constituency.
In the Senate, what is called debate more often is a series of set speeches, designed to let the senators get "on the record" with their views. In the House, time constraints and restrictive rules often focus the arguments on arcane-sounding provisions of specific amendments.
The concept of these new debates is very different: Take a broad and provocative statement of policy and debate it back and forth for 90 minutes. Each side will have four members, and the rules, based on those used at the Oxford University Political Union, encourage the speakers to question each other as much as they expand their own arguments.
The Democrats won a coin toss and _ no surprise _ chose health care as the first issue. The Republicans get to designate the subject for the second debate on April 20 and are leaning toward welfare reform as the topic. The third debate in this experimental series will be held on May 11 and will mix Republicans and Democrats on each side, with some aspect of foreign policy as the likely subject.
The idea behind that "non-partisan" third debate, said Rep. Bob Walker, R-Pa., who is organizing the GOP preparations, is to "demonstrate that some issues are more philosophical than partisan."
Walker's role is significant, because he is known as one of the fiercest fighters on the House floor for the prerogatives of the minority party. As a master of one-liners himself, he acknowledges the shortcomings of much of the current House debate. "We have a lot of one-minute vignettes where members express opinions, but there is no dialogue," he said. "These debates will have dialogue among people who have some expertise. I hope our constituents will see there is an ability in Congress to examine issues and express views with some skill."
On the rare occasions when Congress has actually debated great issues, members of the public have discovered _ often to their surprise _ that those who speak for them in Washington do it very well. The last such debate that most people remember was the one in January 1991 preceding the vote to approve hostilities in the Persian Gulf.
It was back then that Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., began talking, on a plane ride home from the war zone, about organizing real debates. As Gephardt put it in an interview the other day, "We both felt we need a forum where there can be real questioning of one another on facts, assumptions and beliefs." Gephardt had been introduced to the Oxford-style debates in an appearance on William F. Buckley Jr.'s television program, Firing Line, and liked the format.
"It took three years," Gephardt said, "but we finally got there."
No one supposes these debates in themselves will cure public cynicism about Congress or end the poisonous partisanship that has soured the atmosphere in which the House conducts much of its legislative business. Ultimately, people will judge Congress by its work product, not its debates. And that work will go forward much more smoothly if and when the more dictatorial of the Democrats and the more combative of the Republicans recognize that Congress is the real victim of their skirmishing.
Partisanship is a fact of life, because, as Gephardt said in a speech last September, "The truth is that we do disagree." But, he added, "Part of the public's concern about partisanship would disappear if we could depersonalize debate and fight over issues instead of launching character attacks."
These debates are a step in the right direction.
Washington Post Writers Group