Idaho legislators met with mediators from the National Institute for Civil Discourse on Tuesday to discuss strategies for maintaining civil debate during the 2016 legislative session.
While House and Senate leaders say they don’t think that Idaho has a particularly uncivil Legislature, they hope the training will help ideologically diverse lawmakers find common ground and make debates more constructive.
The institute, run by the University of Arizona, was formed after the 2011 shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords. It conducts civility training courses in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress. Idaho legislative leaders arranged for the institute to hold the training.
The National Institute for Civil Discourse has run a total of 17 such seminars in 12 different states. But this was the first time it has run such a seminar at which nearly every lawmaker was in attendance — only five missed the training.
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House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said it has become tradition to have a training session of some sort at each year. Last year, the training focused on ethics.
This year’s training is meant to deal with a fundamental problem that faces any legislative body, Bedke said.
Common wisdom holds that religion and politics shouldn’t be discussed because people hold religious and political convictions close to their hearts, he said. So disagreements about such matters escalate quickly.
But the Legislature’s task is making laws, so avoiding discussion of politics won’t work. Bedke said he hoped the seminar would help debates tend in a more positive direction.
“It has taken us a long time in this country to get to the state of incivility that we’re in today,” Executive Director Carolyn Lukensmeyer said.
In 2013, the Civility in America survey found that 70 percent of Americans believe incivility has reached the crisis stage. The survey found 95 percent of Americans surveyed believe the U.S. has a civility problem.
Political science research suggests that this may be the lowest point for civility in political discourse since shortly after the end of the Civil War, Lukensmeyer said. She lays the blame for the development in several places, including the increasing role of money in elections and the ability to voice opinions anonymously over the Internet.
Several lawmakers were critical of the media’s role in creating incivility.
Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, pointed to a recent Post Register article detailing lawmakers’ views on climate change, and the Idaho Statesman’s publication of several subsequent letters to the editor criticizing lawmakers’ views on the subject.
Hill said the article made state lawmakers look stupid and the criticism some of them received was unfair.
But Hill told lawmakers they also have to look to their own conduct.
“We can’t blame just the media,” he said. “We do it to ourselves. We do it to each other.”
Lukensmeyer said maintaining a civil tone is important because it allows lawmakers who disagree strongly about policy to nonetheless find common ground. When discourse becomes uncivil, minority voices — including those at the far end of the dominant party’s ideological spectrum — don’t get much of a hearing.
So Lukensmeyer said the session would encourage lawmakers to discuss a “value question” in order to foster more understanding between rival factions.
“What do you value most about Idaho?” she said.
Often, questions such as this help legislators to realize they share many common goals and values, even if they differ on the policies necessary to achieve those goals, she said.
The media was not allowed to follow the discussion sessions as they progressed. That was in order to promote a freer exchange of ideas, Lukensmeyer said.
“We want to create an atmosphere that they’re not going to read on social media something they said yesterday amongst themselves,” she said.