Building a Washington That Washington Would Respect

As President Barack Obama and the newly elected Congress argue acrimoniously about issues from immigration reform to authorizing the use of force against ISIS and funding the Department of Homeland Security (DHA), "Washington" has become synonymous with discord and deadlock.

George Washington, who gave our capital its name and whose birthday falls on February 22, authored "Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation." Our first president's first rule was: "Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present."

Can Washington, D.C., return to George Washington's ideals?

Washington, DC, used to be considered a small town. And people treated each other as neighbors. Today the tone in Washington is more akin to Penn Station at rush hour. People not only walk past but talk past one another.

The public is routinely fed talking points from politicians and pundits who personally attack their adversaries. Just this week former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said he doesn't think President Barack Obama "loves America."

"If you get sick, America, the Republican healthcare plan is this: Die quickly," said Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Florida) on the floor of the House.

The least we should expect from our elected officials is that they will be on speaking terms. Then maybe we can hope for collaboration, coordination and -- yes -- even compromise.

It used to be so. After a landslide defeat in the 1980 presidential election, House Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-Massachusetts) said, "We're going to cooperate with the president. It's America first and party second."

Today? Getting the two parties to agree on a budget is nearly impossible. Annual appropriations bills are largely handled en masse and simply carry over spending from year to year. And spending cuts are managed through "sequestration" so that no one's fingerprints are on them.

Meanwhile, party organizations are often pushed to the sidelines as bloggers and pundits enforce the ideological line. In 2013 the government was shut down to make a point. Today funding to fight terrorism at home and abroad is held hostage by both parties.

The problem is that bipartisanship is seen as a weakness at best, treasonous at worst. Politicians in gerrymandered districts do not fear general election defeat so much as being "primaried out."

This has created a new calculus. The optics of combat are preferred over the art of compromise. Those who actually try to govern risk "friendly" fire from within their own ranks and the venom of ideological watchdogs.

The fact is that no meaningful relationship can be sustained without talking, and listening, to one another. This is true in every family -- and for the dysfunctional family on Capitol Hill.

Here's the reality: We live in an era of divided government, as it has been -- with rare exceptions -- for more than three decades. Even when President Ronald Reagan won a landslide reelection in 1984, Democrats held control of the House of Representatives and regained the Senate in 1986.

Yes, the media shares the blame. I once heard former White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater tell a story about briefing President Reagan before a press conference. Pushing an extreme line of questioning, he was interrupted: "Marlin, they're not going to ask that."

Today everything is fair game. Are evolution and contraception really the biggest issues we face?!

Politicians are punished for candor and rewarded for obfuscation. Answer a question directly and forthrightly and you have made a rookie mistake. Adroitly avoid the question and you are practically presidential timber.

How do we get back to the small-town tone? First, by changing the terms of debate. Leadership does not mean hiding behind principles until a problem becomes a crisis. It means just the opposite: confronting a problem based on your principles, before it becomes a headline.

We must return to a culture where collaboration is celebrated, not condemned. Speaker O'Neill famously said that "all politics is local." So are all voters. That means working with people who may not share your prescription for responding to a problem but share your goal of solving it. In an era of divided government, no legislative solution will be pure. But there will be items that both sides can embrace and declare victory over.

We should honor the grownups and hold accountable the bomb throwers who disrespect their adversaries and the institution itself. Passion for an issue or idea is welcome, even necessary. What's not is the drive to destroy opponents and even allies for crossing a supposed ideological line. That's not passion; that's parochialism.

Perhaps our representatives and candidates should abide by the same standards of civility outside the halls of Congress that they must meet when speaking from the floor of either chamber. Maybe the next time a pundit or blogger blasts our political leaders for failing to get along so that they can get things done, he or she should think twice before accusing them of misdeeds and misconduct.

We can argue about who broke down the walls of civility. But finger pointing only perpetuates the problem. Instead, let's figure out how we can change the culture from tribal warfare to patriotic problem solving. It is possible to share your vision of America without disparaging half of it.

Who knows? Maybe we can adopt George Washington's "Rules of Civility" for our own time.