Monday, May 20, 2013

The Toxicity Index


By Bill Kraus

The toxicity level in the state capitol has never been low, but its recent rise may be unprecedented.

It started on its upward course during the bellicose years when the two tough, smart, uncompromising leaders Scott Jensen in the Assembly and Chuck Chvala in the Senate ordered an end to the casual camaraderie that had characterized those two bodies for years.

The public show in both houses had been somewhere between bitter and vitriolic, but the after hours was where the deals were made and the rhetoric toned down. The watering holes were off the record and populated by seemingly irreconcilable partisans from both sides. Breaking bread together was common, neither encouraged nor frowned upon.

The respect for the trade and its practitioners was evident despite the disputatious nature of the institutions.

In the winter of 2011 and the recall rants that followed camaraderie was out the window and the toxicity level went ballistic. The issues that were the worthy subjects of debate and disagreement became personal. “He said, she said,” escalated to, “If he [or she] is for it, I’m against it.”

Compromise and civility were history. Ideological purity and rigidity reigned.

The toxicity level reached 100.

One respected veteran of the legislative wars predicted, “It will take 30 years to get over this.”

I asked the journalists Patrick Marley and Jason Stein, who had reported on the wars of 2011 at the time and revisited and updated them in their admirable book, where they thought the toxic index was. They thought it was still high, but dropping ever so slightly.

A good sign.

A better sign is the informal survey taken by a newly elected member of the Assembly who said that a good third of the group that came in in 2012 said their constituents had been vocal and firm about their desire to see if not peace a lower level of conflict in that chamber.

Organized sociability was common in the last third of the last century where a series of governors brought presumed enemies together at the executive residence for drinks and dinner along with citizens, administrators, academics, and others who didn’t belong to the same clubs or hang out at the same taverns in their home venues either.

These soirees have been more rarely used in the new millennium and hardly ever as an antidote to the rising toxicity downtown.

And Washington is reputably as bad or worse. A new member of Congress has said that there has been one social occasion since November when an event in DC brought the partisans under the same roof. A long series of Wisconsin governors would have told the president, if asked, that he might have followed their example and hosted more than a few of those kinds of occasions himself.

What we need is a sociologist to creative a Toxicity Index along with the criteria used to measure the intensity of the affliction. The questions should go beyond attendance at official occasions. Co-sponsorship of legislation would be a factor. Hanging out together in the off hours at places where guns are figuratively left at the door, and all who enter are welcome and comfortable. Talking to, instead of at, each other. Even freeing whatever free spirits there are in today’s legislators from caucus control.

It’s not against the rules for cabinet secretaries to invite legislators out for or to their homes for dinner.

Driving to work together. How many deals were cut by the carpoolers from central Wisconsin on the way to and from Madison in the not-so-distant past?

Does that 10 percent approval rating bother anybody? Outsiders are asking why they should respect people who don’t respect their trade or each other. It’s a legitimate question.

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