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February 18, 2007

HAMILTON: In Congress, courtesy matters

When Congress convened in January, those who were watching got treated to a small but revealing moment: As John Boehner, the new minority leader of the House, was handing the House gavel over to incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi, he looked out at the assembled members and told them, “Be nice.”

It might have sounded like a jocular and insignificant point, but if Congress follows any single admonition this year, I hope it’s that one.

In truth, it shouldn’t even need saying. For an individual legislator, cultivating congenial relationships with other legislators ought to be a matter of habit. In order to get anything done, especially if it involves legislation, you have to work constantly to line up support, convince others that what you want to accomplish matters, and make it clear that you’re worth listening to. Even if others don’t agree with your goals, they’ll still respect your efforts and at least listen to your arguments.

But being nice — and especially, treating others fairly — is at the moment as much a group imperative as it is wise personal custom. Congress has just emerged from an extended period in which fairness and decent treatment of others were too often banished, and it created a toxic environment on Capitol Hill.

The new Democratic majority has an opportunity to freshen the atmosphere, and every American has a stake in whether or not they make good on that chance.

For if there’s any single lesson to be gleaned from the Republican takeover after the 1994 elections or the Democrats’ this year, it is that the manner in which a majority wields power has enormous consequences.

If members of the minority party lose on issues of policy but believe that the process was a fair one, they might be frustrated, but they’ll abide by the results.

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