A Seat in Congress

by Ted Gup

The idea is neither new, nor mine alone, but well worth revisiting: to curb excessive partisanship in Congress, get rid of the seating scheme that separates one party from another. Mix ‘em up. Imagine  Senators Barbara Boxer (D- Ca.) and Tom Coburn (R- Okla.) side-by-side, whispering in the back row, sharing a bag of chocolate kisses, and finding a way off the fiscal cliff.

OK, so it may not usher in an Age of Aquarius, but it can do no harm, and it may just do some good. Robert Frost was right when he wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.” The aisle that divides Congressional members is just that, a wall that does not merely recognize but contributes to the notion that the chasm between parties is wide. It creates a geography that legitimizes that divide, gives it length and breadth, and a visual that is antithetical to reconciliation and the common good. It puts an institutional imprimatur on the schism, the very incarnation of “taking sides.”

You say it’s only a place to sit, but where you sit in Congress telegraphs to one and all where you stand. It says that you begin from a different place and will likely end there as well. It is no coincidence that we speak of “winning a seat in Congress,” as if it were a sedentary prize, rather than a chance to rise to leadership. And for those who say it can’t be done, it can and has already been tried on select occasions. At the State of the Union (2011) and at inaugurals, lawmakers allowed themselves to mingle and fraternize with the opposition. There were no reports of fratricide or partisan mayhem. Brooking that chasm may be symbolic only but isn’t a symbol of collaboration better than one of division? Besides, Congress is full of symbols that command respect, the gavel and mace among them.

Sure conservative talk show hosts have dissed the idea, and politicians of both stripes have given it the back of the hand as so much window dressing.  These days any gesture in the direction of “Kumbaya”– Democratic Representative Nancy Pelosi’s description of the idea -- is tossed out, but interestingly some of those rejections appear to be grounded in the fear that it might threaten party purity or discipline – a stronger endorsement for shuffling the political deck, I could not imagine.

But if there is one thing that most members of Congress agree on, without respect to party or politics, it’s that the old sense of community – the cross-aisle socializing after hours, the meeting of spouses and children, the friendly pick-up game of basketball, is sorely missed. Party rivalries have given rise to bloodsport. Community has dissolved into an assemblage of strangers rife with suspicion, resentment and petty feuds. Much of it has been brought on by the relentless need to raise campaign cash, which itself has spawned a Tuesday-through-Thursday schedule, the every-weekend-home-routine, and the unraveling of a social fabric that long transcended hyper-partisanship and fostered a human perspective. The aisle that divides feeds into the idea of isolation and containment, promotes party – as opposed to national – identity, and reinforces loyalty to caucus, not country.  It is George Washington’s worst nightmare, the one he warned of in his celebrated Farewell Address of 1796.

There are those in Congress even today who point out that the design of the House and Senate in the semicircle was intended to create a shared focus and a sense of unity, as opposed to the architecture of Parliament where opponents face each other. And there have been times when history and happenstance have forced The Other to take a seat with the opposition. The “Cherokee Strip,” as it came to be known, was the product of a gross imbalance between Democrats and Republicans in the Senates of 1907-1909, 1937-1939, and 1939-1941 requiring members of the dominant party to sit with the minority. It drew its name from a narrow section of land in Oklahoma that belonged neither to the Indian Territory nor to the US government – a no man’s land. By the 89th Congress (1965-1967) four senators sat in a makeshift fifth row rather than join the opposition. There was even a time in the 1950’s when Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon left the Republicans and, declaring himself an Independent, took his seat in the middle of the main aisle. Former Rep Henry Hyde (Rep. – Ill) was often to be seen sitting with the opposition and no one ever questioned his conservative bona fides.

Of course, the roots of this scheme of sitting with one’s own – the “Birds-of-a-feather” syndrome – are not so easily ascertained. You’d think there would be an abundance of records on when the practice started, by whom, and why. In fact, the shelf is rather scant, documentary evidence hard to come by. Even some Congressional historians confess it is something of a mystery.  A souvenir from the 24th Congress (1835-1837) – one of the earliest in the possession of Congressional staff – shows that already the parties had parted ways. By then, the House had 242 members who arrayed themselves by party, though it was a more exotic mix than today, with 75 anti-Jacksonians, 143 Jacksonians, 16 anti-Masonics, and 8 nullifiers.

But there was a time before poltical parties – brief as it may have been – and the competition for seats had less to do with political position and more to do with what was perceived to be the best seat in the house (or Senate, as the case may be.) The rule was first come, first serve. In those early and innocent days of the Republic, a time of horse and carriage, a decided advantage went to those who lived closest to the Capitol. That would have been the delegates from Virginia and Maryland. Others, conscious of their geographic disadvantage, finally insisted in 1845 on instituting a lottery system. Balls of marble or other material were placed in a box and drawn out by a page who called out the number on the ball which corresponded to a member’s name on a list. The winner had his choice.

But the evolution of parties, at least as expressed on the floor of Congress, has a murkier background and even those who specialize in such arcane topics have few sources to turn to. Charlene Bickford, Director of the First Federal Congress Project, says that in the First Congress members sat largely, though not exclusively, by state. (That sounds like an excellent idea to me, reminding members that they represent the same folks back home.) But just when the parties divided the House and Senate by seating arrangement is less clear. One of the earliest documents to address it is the “Plan for the House of Representatives,” done by New York’s Representative Philip Van Corlandt in 1796. The schematic and names scribbled in are thought to have been a way to help count votes on the House floor. What it shows is some members sitting by state, but others arrayed by seniority.  Mind you, seniority in 1796 was a relative thing, given the infancy of government.  A year later, a visiting Polish aristocrat found the members in the House sitting randomly, or at least with no discernible pattern. Party does not yet appear to have surfaced as an organizing principle.

The point is, Congress has not always been seated by party alignment, there have often been those who dared to cross the line, and the ossification of the current scheme hardly seems to be serving us well.

Maybe a bit of rejiggering won’t bring us eternal harmony, but it’s surely worth a try. Even the allies and their foes could leave their trenches and cross the line to observe a moment’s peace that Christmas of 1914, before getting back to the business of killing. Is it too much to ask of our legislators to do the same?

                -- T.S.G.