Does Washington Need a Real Code of Conduct?

Listening and talking are the only things that work when it comes to resolving disputes. That approach needs to be at the center of a real, useful Washington code of conduct.
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This past week, with our country mired in the latest version of Washington intrigue and positioning around the impending sequester, I happened to notice a prominent sign at a suburban shopping center. Against a purple background were the words "Code of Conduct," spelling out suitable and civil behaviors for shoppers.

This makes a lot of sense. In any venue, without a code of conduct that's either expressed or implicitly understood, society doesn't operate in a civil and productive way.

Often, these codes are unwritten. It is implicit that you don't yell fire in a crowded movie theatre and that you don't throw garbage on your neighbor's lawn. It's also implicit that you don't always say exactly what's on your mind if you want to win friends and influence people. Plenty of comedy scripts are built around the breaking of these unspoken social codes. Learning them is a natural part of growing up -- a type of learning known as "emotional intelligence." These social codes of conduct are not only life skills, they form the basis for our shared values, and are often even codified into law.

The big problem in our country is that Washington does not have a code of conduct regarding civility or collaboration that is useful or productive. The Official Code of Conduct of the U.S. House of Representatives is at best vague and at worst lame: "A Member, officer, or employee of the House of Representatives shall conduct himself at all times in a manner which shall reflect creditably on the House of Representatives."

The ambiguity of this code has resulted in a social-emotional vacuum that appears to have spawned a sort of reverse code of conduct that's devoid of the emotional intelligence that governs ordinary daily social interactions for the rest of us.

The Washington reverse code of conduct is guided by a few basic principles: when the other party comes up with an idea, always oppose it at first; point fingers and make problems look like it's the other guy's fault; delay constructive conversation because conversation doesn't play well in 30-second sound bites; when dealing with substantive issues, kick the can down the road because by dealing with the issue now, somebody might pin the blame on you; and, as a general rule, fight, fight, fight -- because when you tell your constituents that you're fighting for them and their beliefs, that will make you look good.

America has come to accept this standard of behavior, which reverses what we all learned in kindergarten about how to get along, as "just politics."

But do we get results from the one-two punch that is politics today? Or could we get better outcomes by responding to a proposed solution by simply saying that we're going to have an honest conversation around the other party's proposals and come up with the best joint solutions for the greater good? This seems as obvious as reaching for a bottle of water to quench a parched mouth.

If we had a real code of conduct in Washington, the current sequester debacle could have been avoided. In business, codes of conduct require that leaders start conversations about how to resolve contentious issues. When progress isn't made, managers are fired.

Riding on politics-as-usual are some daunting issues that need resolution: sequester; the budget and another impending fiscal cliff; the still-fragile economy; gun control; immigration; Social Security; Medicare reform; and infrastructure. Given Washington's current mode of operation, it's hard to imagine that these issues will be resolved in any way that is productive for our nation.

Last week, legendary Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward and Senior Economic Advisor Gene Sperling exchanged emails after Woodward told Sperling that he was about to break a story attributing the sequester idea to President Obama. After a heated phone conversation, Sperling emailed that, "... as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim."

Woodward, rattled that the White House was threatening him with retaliation, revealed the emails to the press. No resolution. Just conflict.

But now Woodward is inviting Sperling and others from the administration over to his house for conversation that can resolve their dispute or misunderstanding. On CBS's Face The Nation, Woodward said: "I am in the business of listening, and I'm going to invite him over to my house if he'll come and hopefully he'll bring others from the White House, maybe the president himself, and we can -- you know, talking really works."

Listening and talking are the only things that work when it comes to resolving disputes. That approach needs to be at the center of a real, useful Washington code of conduct.

Purple America is a national initiative to re-focus the American conversation on a civil, productive and respectful dialog around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to

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