Renée C. Byer /

Rep. Dan Lungren talks to supporters in Gold River on election night, alongside his wife, Bobbi, daughter Kathleen Lungren and her husband, Jobe Ousman. Lungren, formerly the state attorney general, is critical of a campaign ad that suggested he wanted a 5-year-old girl to die.

Viewpoints: Debates on issues need more sense of civility

Published: Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 5E

As I approach the end of my service in Congress I had the honor of expressing some summary thoughts on the floor of the House of Representatives. One of the issues I addressed was the question of civility in the Congress, and in the political dialogue which takes place in the country at large.

Studying the history of the House, one understands that we are governed by a code of conduct that dates back to the beginning of our great country. President Thomas Jefferson – who authored the first manual on congressional conduct – believed vigorous and robust debate was appropriate. However he also understood the nature of man. He understood that we sometimes would not maintain the type of discourse that would honor us or the House. As a result, he envisioned a place for debate – a place to reflect the views, aspirations and hopes of the American people.

At the same time, he understood the need for safeguards that would temper the emotions of the day and prevent conflict between members, including physical altercations or confrontations. For instance, Jefferson's manual requires us to address our arguments to the presiding officer rather than directly to another member. Similarly it does not allow a member to question the motivation of another member, a senator or the president.

I respect the rules and traditions of the House. I endeavored to follow them. While they do not directly govern the conduct of a campaign, perhaps the example of this attempt at civility would be a great example for the political side of things.

In the final days of my race for re-election there was an ad run against me – and others – that tested the definition of civility. The ad which was made specific to each of us and our individual races had a girl who was about 5 years old, looking into the camera, asking, "Why does Dan Lungren want me to die?" It was stunning in its impact and its cynicism.

There can and should be legitimate debate about the moral and ethical concerns surrounding embryonic stem cell research, but to have an ad that reduces it to the question of whether a 5-year-old can look in the camera and say, "Why does this congressman want me to die?" is beyond the pale. How does this elevate the level of debate? How does this in any way enhance our ability to make very difficult decisions?

Does this condemn to ridicule anyone who has traditional values consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church and other churches? That ad was produced by the Pro-Majority PAC with connections to some in Congress. While they have no obligation to abide by the rules of the House in terms of civility, my question is: "Where does that leave us as a nation when we can't talk about difficult, serious issues – issues of morals and issues of ethics and issues of conduct – without reducing them to the lowest level?"

I am, as they say, a big boy. I've been involved in politics and government for a long time. I know campaigns can be tough. But is that an excuse for losing any sense of proportionality … any sense of respect for one another … any sense of civility?

The House of Representatives is a great institution, representing the greatest country on the face of the Earth. So I don't say this as a loser's lament. Maybe it's a lover's lament. I love this country. I love the state that I represent. I love the people of this country. It is in a real sense an unconditional love, but it is not an uncritical love.

We have an obligation to review, to critique, to constantly guard against the "lesser angels of human nature." You can do that with all the vigor in the world, and you can do that with all the respect in the world. If, in fact, we wish to solve the problems of this nation, we must recognize that there has to be some work "across the aisle." Perhaps the best way to initiate such a process is to ask, "How can I be civil in the discussion even though I think my opponent, my counterpart on the other side of the aisle, is dead wrong?"

I hope and pray that members of this new Congress will approach their duties with a sense of civility and a sense of love for this country. And if they do that, I have no fear for our future.

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