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U.S. Senators Kaine and Capito discuss bipartisan cooperation, civic dialogue at Democracy Dialogues event

The goal of the event series is to explore critical issues facing our democracy through a variety of different perspectives

<p>The first Democracy Dialogues discussion occurred Jan. 6, just hours after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the United States Capitol Building.</p>

The first Democracy Dialogues discussion occurred Jan. 6, just hours after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the United States Capitol Building.

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Shelley Capito. R-W.Va., weighed in on the importance of engaging in civil debate to strengthen democracy and to reach bipartisan cooperation within Congress during the Democracy Initiative’s second Democracy Dialogues event held via Zoom Thursday morning.

University President Jim Ryan opened Thursday’s event by saying that the goal of the series is to “explore critical issues facing our democracy through a variety of different perspectives” and “to model what it means to engage in civil discourse and debate with those whose perspectives, or opinions might differ [from ours].”

“Today's conversation will explore the prospects for moving our country forward at a time of great polarization,” Ryan said.

The first Democracy Dialogues discussion occurred Jan. 6, just hours after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the United States Capitol Building in an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The event featured former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, CNN Tonight Anchor Don Lemon, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and Margaret Brennan, senior foreign affairs correspondent and host of CBS’ Face the Nation, among other political analysts and figures.

Democracy Initiative co-director Melody Barnes and Pilar Jimenez Larre Borges, former president of the Latinx Student Alliance and fourth-year College student, moderated Thursday’s discussion and posed questions submitted by audience members to the senators.

“My guess is that you will both agree with me that our democracy requires us to do something that's extremely difficult to organize ourselves,” Barnes said. “But what happens to this democracy when discomfort is really distrust or when distaste becomes antipathy? What happens when we know so little about one another that we don't have the capacity to identify our common goals?”

Despite their differences in party affiliation, Kaine and Capito have worked together on bipartisan legislation to protect miners’ rights and to combat Alzheimer’s, among other initiatives. Both senators mentioned that they are cooperating on a safe drinking water bill which would be on the Senate floor for a vote Thursday afternoon. The Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act of 2021 passed the U.S. Senate by a vote of 89-2 after the event. 

Barnes first asked Capito why she thinks the increasing polarized culture of the U.S. has affected the self governance, stability and vibrancy of its democratic institutions.

Capito began the discussion by talking about the motivation of Congresspeople to represent their constituents along with discouragement they face when goals aren’t achieved.

“I think that polarization really leads to stagnation, which leads to frustration and then you say to yourself, ‘Is it worth it to keep trying?’” Capito said.

Capito also noted that, despite many political differences, she and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have agreed with how to handle the opioid crisis, which has offered a “measure of comfort.”

Kaine continued to detail the bipartisan cooperation between political parties in Congress and said that bipartisan initiatives — such as Kaine and his colleagues’ work on the bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee — don’t tend to be focused on in the media. Instead, he believes the media tends to focus on conflict as “cooperation isn’t sexy.”

“The bipartisan things don't get attention — what gets attention are the areas where we disagree,” Kaine said.

In regards to the riot at the Capitol Building Jan. 6, Barnes asked the speakers whether they think the violence could have been a turning point on Capitol Hill to change the way congressional members engage with each other. 

Kaine responded that he was one of the senators who filed an ethics complaint against Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley over their objections to certifying President Joe Biden’s election results Jan. 6. Cruz has continued to baselessly assert that Biden did not win the election, yet his claims have been disproven with widespread evidence that Biden was legitimately elected. 

As a result, Kaine said that Hawley filed a counter-complaint against Kaine and other senators alleging that punishing, sanctioning, censuring or removing a senator for disagreeing with them is “antithetical” to democracy. 

“I just think, you know, we have work to do for our constituents and we have to be able to work with each other as colleagues, and so I'm kind of trying to set that aside,” Kaine said.

Capito reflected on her experience during the Capitol breach, saying she initially had a “9/11 reaction” as she realized the situation was so out of control for her and her colleagues. Rioters came dangerously close to representatives, who went into recess and evacuated just minutes after protestors entered the building. In fact, these protestors were just feet away from the entrance to the Senate chamber doors before Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman led them away — the door had not been barricaded at the time. 

“It was so odd for me to reflect back and remember I had that same feeling on 9/11, like, ‘oh, what's going on?’” Capito said. “I was probably one of the few people in the chamber that day that actually was there on 9/11.”

Larre Borges discussed how inflammatory speech has done “more harm given social media and the reality that a comment can reach 100 million people in 10 seconds” and asked if the government has the responsibility to regulate this speech online. Following Trump’s incitement of the January riot, the former president was banned from social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. These protests were explicitly planned online for weeks before the Capitol was breached. 

Capito noted that she doesn’t think there are clear distinctions between inflammatory speech and non-harmful free speech — instead there are “shades of gray.” She said that Internet speech regulation is often targeted at “snuffing conservative voices.”

Capito said that Congress has continually tried to regulate and has debated social media outlets’ abilities to control speech. For example, Section 230 from the 1996 Communications Decency Act protects websites from facing liability for posts made by its users. This section has recently been challenged by both parties, albeit for different reasons — Republicans are concerned over how the law allows social media platforms to censor conservative speech while Democrats say that harassment and dangerous speech are protected under this law.

Kaine brought up the point that Congress often doesn’t analyze the effects of bills it has passed, but analyzing the effectiveness of legislation could help to “tackle this issue of … falsehoods that encourage violence.”

After talking about social media, a Zoom poll was given to audience members asking whether they think Congress encourages polarization, reflects society’s polarization or both. 60 percent of respondents chose the latter response, and Barnes asked the Senators about the work across partisan lines occurring in Congress.

Kaine responded by saying that he wants his colleagues to consider each other’s different opinions and be open to seeing the merits of their viewpoints.

“Thomas Edison said discontent is the first sign of progress — you don't make progress if everybody’s complacent,” Kaine said. “You make progress when there's some discontent if people can channel it the right way.” 

With increasing divisiveness between political parties, Capito said she thinks it’s hard for some young people to forge a personal relationship with individuals who affiliate themselves with different political ideologies. Personally, Capito said she may disagree with certain politicians, but still has respect for these individuals across the aisle, like Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“You would not find us on the same side of too many issues,” Capito said. “I have great respect for him because he is a believer. He has been rock solid in what he believes from the time he was in school, probably … I asked him where he got his mittens.”

Kaine said a barrier to proposed bipartisan legislation making it to the Senate floor is that “caucuses have too much power in the Senate and the committees have too little power.”

“Too often, the committee will do something and [the bill] won't see light of day on the floor,” Kaine said. “I wish we would empower the committees more, so if something comes out of the committee with a minimum level of bipartisanship, say two-thirds of the vote, it ought to get a guaranteed moment of sun on the floor whether or not the leaders like it.”

Instituting this structural change, Kaine said, would allow the public to become more aware of senators across the aisle cooperating on legislation.

Larre Borges then asked the panelists how they believe Biden’s proposed infrastructure bill can be agreed upon by both sides of Congress.

“The Biden administration put forth their vision and the GOP has put together their vision,” Larre Borges said. “Both plans encompass infrastructure — they differ in terms of what infrastructure actually is and the size of the budget.”

In response, Kaine acknowledged the importance of including elements supported by both democrats and republicans in a nation-wide infrastructure bill. 

“The work that Shelley is doing will advance the ball in making sure that the package has components that are bipartisan,” Kaine said. “I think we are likely to get an infrastructure bill with a lot of components that have been advanced by republicans and in bipartisan ways.”

Capito closed the discussion with optimism for continued bipartisan cooperation within Congress. At his core, Capito said Biden is a senator and that he knows negotiation.

“Even under President Trump, obviously admittedly a very polarizing figure, we did criminal justice reform, we did the Great American Outdoors Act … and they were bipartisan,” Capito said. “They weren’t easy issues.” 

Members of the public are invited to watch a video recording of the event, which was released April 29 at 5 p.m. on the University’s livestream website.

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