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Opinion

Break Up the Political Parties — Split Seating in Congress

A key to ending the partisan rancor that has paralyzed Washington and dominated the health care debate may lie in recognizing one of the most powerful laws that Congress never passed.

Coined by Rufus E. Miles Jr., a federal official under Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, what is now called Miles’ Law declares: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”

Nowhere is that truer today, both literally and figuratively, than in Congress, where Democrats sit on their side and Republicans sit on theirs and both are unable to see any but their own party’s perspective. From the grandest joint session to the lowliest subcommittee hearing, our elected representatives are physically and emotionally separated by party, aggravating the intense animosity.

Even Chief Justice John Roberts, whose Supreme Court regards itself as above the partisan fray, admonished members of Congress for churlish behavior after the annual State of the Union message. In the age of instant, global communications, the antics worry our allies and further convince our enemies and detractors that the United States lacks the resolve and unity of purpose to address today’s crucial issues.

One simple measure to defuse the partisanship—and elevate Congress—would be to seat members alphabetically, by name or by state, and/or periodically rotate their seating. The same goes for committees: The chairman should sit in the middle, and members should be arranged by seniority, not party.

Today’s segregated seating arrangement shelters our representatives from opposing points of view, reduces the need for common courtesy, reinforces the worst tendencies of a two-party system, and undermines efforts at cooperation.

The sobering effect of assigned seating—a tool well used by savvy schoolmasters throughout the world—would render the embarrassing Capitol Hill circus of cheering, jeering, sulking and sidebar-whispering a relic of the past.

How much better it would look to the rest of the world if, during the State of the Union, the president, instead of alternating his attention from one side to the other, addressed the integrated whole—the union of our elected officials committed to finding common solutions to common problems.

This simple step toward E pluribus unum obviously would not fix everything. Civility, respect for differences, collaboration and compromise would not be achieved solely with a new seating arrangement. After all, seating changes didn’t eliminate all the disruptive behavior in our grade-school classrooms, but they certainly helped.

For everyone’s benefit, congressional leaders should recognize the power of Miles’ Law. Mix the members. Imagine looking back 50 years from now to see that a neutral seating chart opened a new era of mutual respect and bipartisan action in our representative branch of government. 

Joe Reeder is a Washington lawyer and former assistant secretary of the Army.

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