Civility Defines Us

If asked, most Americans would say they want a divided government, one in which neither political party has total control of the House, Senate and White House. They want a government in which different ideas can be debated openly and both parties have the opportunity to put forth meaningful legislation for an up or down vote.

Public opinion of Congress has reached the nadir in approval ratings. It's hard to believe that it can get any lower than 21 percent. I have worked in Washington D.C. for 25 years and during that time I have had the honor of meeting a number of outstanding elected officials -- decent and honorable individuals who truly want to make this a great nation. Individuals who do not necessarily share the same political views but, who are in lockstep in their allegiance to this great nation and everything it represents. Individually, these members would receive a rating of 100 percent; as part of an institution, the rating falters. But why?

We live in a civil society but, civility itself has lost its way in Washington. While outside forces, such as cable news, blogs and talk radio, can play a positive and constructive role, they can also have a polarizing effect on the process, creating a chasm that makes it harder for the two political parties to work together. One wonders if members of Congress today - given the outside forces fanning the flames of vitriol - could have approved a Constitution if they were occupying the seats in Constitution Hall over 200 years ago?

The 112th Congress faces many daunting challenges, starting with the deficit. Congress can no longer delay taking serious action to reduce the deficit. We've heard that said for years but, we cannot sustain any economic growth if our debt continues to grow by over $1 trillion per year. The leaders in Congress will face mounting pressure from their respective caucuses to adhere to their core fiscal principles. Can we control the deficit simply by cutting taxes? Doubtful. By raising taxes? Doubtful. By cutting spending? Doubtful. Most likely, it will take a combination of the three, if for no other reason than the need for compromise by a Democratic controlled Senate and a Republican controlled House.

So how does this all relate to the fire service? A good question. Here's my answer: as Congress moves forward in addressing a number of contentious issues, the fire service must stay the course and continue to treat our elected officials with utmost respect and civility. To a large extent, we have prevailed on a number of issues because Congress respects us for who we are and for the respect we extend to them.

While there is nothing wrong with debating the issues with our elected officials, we should always afford them the same respect that we would expect in return. Don't become overly zealous like many of the talking heads and allow vitriol to pour from your tongue. We may not win every battle in the 112th Congress, but by demonstrating decorum and civility, we will remain relevant and respected on Capitol Hill.

BILL WEBB, a Contributing Editor, is the Executive Director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI). Established in 1989, CFSI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy institute designed to enhance Congressional awareness about the concerns and needs of the fire and emergency services. In his capacity, Bill works closely with members of Congress and fire service leaders on developing federal legislation to improve the readiness of our nation's fire and emergency services. Previously, he served in the first Bush Administration as Director of Advance at the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor, traveling across the country and abroad organizing events for the Secretaries.