When public high school teacher Cheri Gensel left her house to make the trip to the Pennsylvania state capitol in Harrisburg, PA, the sun hadn’t yet risen over the mountains of her small town. Ms. Gensel had taken the day off from work to testify before the PA House Labor and Industry Committee on a series of bills that, she believed, would protect the freedom of public employees in the commonwealth. As a social studies teacher, she was excited to share her experience with her students.
Instead, Ms. Gensel received a harsh lesson in the lack of civility that has become all too common within government today. Democratic lawmakers refused to participate in the public hearing. Instead, they staged a walkout and joined public union leaders in a press conference just outside of the hearing room.
Theatrics like this from public unions is far from abnormal, but union leaders have a duty to themselves and their members, not to the people of Pennsylvania.
Conversely, Pennsylvania Representatives take the following oath before entering office:
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support, obey and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this Commonwealth and that I will discharge the duties of my office with fidelity.”
Refusing to participate in the democratic process is far from “discharging the duties of office with fidelity.” What’s worse is the disregard they showed for the principle of debating ideas with those you disagree with. Unfortunately, that is a growing concern across the political spectrum.
Refusing to participate in the democratic process is far from ‘discharging the duties of office with fidelity.’
We’ve seen egregious acts of incivility from lawmakers across the country over the past several years. But this time, Democrats didn’t just give their Republican colleagues the cold shoulder when they left the hearing, they also told those testifying – including Ms. Gensel, who drove two hours to be there– that their stories don’t matter.
If they had stayed for the hearing, they would have learned that similar public labor reform bills had been debated and passed in other states. They would have had the opportunity to hear from and ask questions of experts and speak with public employees who would be directly impacted by the legislation before them.
The issue of public union reform is contentious, and labor’s close financial and ideological ties to the Democratic Party make it particularly political. But hundreds of court cases are filed every year by current and former union members seeking redress over wrongs committed by their unions, making it an issue that neither party should ignore.
If the Democratic lawmakers had stayed to learn about the bills, they could have explained why they were opposed to the legislation. And they could have asked some really difficult questions of the panelists. Maybe questions that their Republican colleagues never thought to ask. That’s what I would hope my lawmaker would do, at least.
But many lawmakers have decided to stop pretending that they legislate based on the needs of their constituents, and instead govern to please their “base.” If they did listen, they’d know that the majority of Americans believe incivility is a problem and trust in government is nearing historic lows.
Many lawmakers have decided to stop pretending that they legislate based on the needs of their constituents, and instead govern to please their ‘base.’
In fact, over 40% believe that a way to solve the problem of incivility is to vote for political leaders who behave in a civil way. That might be why we’ve heard calls for civility on the national stage: from President Biden to Mitt Romney.
These statistics give me hope. Americans are much less polarized than the politicians that represent them and they know that incivility is a problem. Now, we must demand that those who represent us also represent our values. So that the next time Ms. Gensel testifies, her students hear about the respect she received from both sides of the aisle.
Isabel Blank is Communications Director at Americans for Fair Treatment.