Almost two decades ago, Amo Houghton pronounced himself fed up with the partisanship and vitriol he experienced as a Republican member of Congress.
The former Corning Glass CEO and Marine veteran of World War II thought that all the internal bickering plaguing his house only exacerbated the increasing problem of a dysfunctional Washington.
“It’s really not that complicated,” he told the Politics Column in 1996. “You can’t go kicking a guy in the shins or poking someone in the eye and then try to work out deals about the future of the country.
“It’s absolutely a matter of practicality,” he continued. “If you want to do the thing you were sent down here to do, you must be able to do it with both sides of the aisle.”
So Houghton helped convene a “civility conference” the following March in Hershey, Pa., for 300 congressional colleagues and their families. It was sponsored by the Pew Foundation.
But Houghton, a true gentleman now retired and living in Massachusetts, could not have been encouraged by Wednesday’s presidential debate between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. Amid Trump’s label of Clinton as a “nasty woman” and Clinton’s description of Trump as Vladimir Putin’s “puppet,” it might seem as if the pair needed a ticket to Hershey themselves.
Despite Houghton’s efforts of 20 years ago, civility and even compromise loom as even more unattainable goals.
That’s why it was notable that two candidates for re-election on Nov. 8 – Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Brian Higgins – both say the need for compromise in Washington will dominate their agendas should they return to Capitol Hill.
During interviews last week with the editorial board of The Buffalo News, the pair of Democrats independently emphasized the need for both sides to reach across the aisle.
Schumer called it a “moral imperative.”
“If we have four more years of gridlock, the anger and frustration will only cascade,” he said. “I really worry about it.”
Schumer was seeking the endorsement of The News during his conversation, and said he believes he has the ability to seek and reach compromise.
“I get along with Speaker Ryan,” he said. “His politics and mine are not the same. But he is not the kind of person who says ‘my way or no way.’ Neither am I.”
Schumer thinks chances are good that more compromise – and more accomplishment – are possible next year because the hard-right “Freedom Caucus” that represents tea party sympathizers may be losing steam.
“A lot of mainstream Republican colleagues are getting tired of them,” he said.
Higgins voiced similar thoughts, but says it all arrives with a Trump defeat and a new wave of Republicans eager for compromise.
“My hope is that Donald Trump gets eviscerated so the message is clear that the likes of him never come our way again,” he said, adding the Democrats as a “healthy center-left” need a “healthy center-right.”
“The point is that a governing coalition presents the chance for the best results for America,” he said. “My hope is that the election will result in a major realignment of Congress. But if the only objective is to make Hillary Clinton a one-term president, then we’re right back where we started.”
The pair of New York Democrats and their Republican colleagues may be facing long odds in achieving some sense of collegiality. A new Siena College poll released a few days ago shows a small majority of New Yorkers – 52 percent – remains pessimistic that the new president and Congress will work together to move the United States forward, compared with 46 percent who say they’re optimistic.
Many Republicans express the same desire as Higgins and Schumer for Congress to work in a bipartisan fashion and accomplish something.
But events like the Wednesday night debate cast doubts on whether it will ever happen.
Where is Amo Houghton when you need him?