Read a transcript of former Congressman Louis Stokes’ recent speech at South Franklin Circle

Pictured above: Former Congressman Louis Stokes and South Franklin Circle member Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell; below: Rev. Otis Moss, Jr., Edwina Moss, South Franklin Circle members Cathy and John Lewis.

Last Wednesday, June 5, The Dialogue Series at South Franklin Circle welcomed former Congressman Louis Stokes, who discussed his years in Congress and whether or not the current division among political parties can be reconciled.

Stokes addressed an eager audience of about 120 individuals that included special guests Reverand Otis Moss, Jr. and his wife Edwina Moss.

Many in attendance requested a copy of Stokes’ speech.  With his permission, we have printed a complete transcript below.

Special thanks to South Franklin Circle member John Lewis for his help with organizing this event.  For more information about South Franklin Circle and programming like the Dialogue Series, please click here or call 1-888-574-1906.


This is the topic John Lewis has assigned me to discuss with you tonight.  Part of it is going to be easy.  Part is going to be difficult.  The 30 years I spent in Congress from January 1969 to January 1999 is the most gratifying period of my life.  I have no regrets.  When I went to Congress there were great challenges facing the nation.  One year earlier my brother, Carl, had been elected Mayor of Cleveland, the first Black American to be elected Mayor of a major American city.  This was an achievement in keeping with attorney general Bobby Kennedy’s prediction that in 40 years he could see the election of a Black American as President of the United States.  The day I was sworn in as a member of Congress was an historic day.  Three of us, Bill Clay of Missouri, Shirley Chisholm of New York and I were the first African Americans elected to Congress from our respective states.  In the case of Shirley Chisholm she was the first woman of color to ever be elected and serve in Congress.  But it was a historic day because that day when the three of us were seated we joined six other African American members of Congress who were already serving in that body.  The nine of us constituted the largest number of African Americans to ever sit in Congress since 1875.  In that year, in the post-reconstruction period, immediately following the civil war there were six blacks serving in the House and one in the Senate, all were freed slaves.

From 1875 to 1900 there were a total of 22 Black Americans who served in the House and two in the Senate.  By 1900, due to the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, the enactment of the so-called ‘Black Laws’ throughout the South, racism and other forms of discrimination, all African Americans in Congress had been defeated.  The last to leave in 1900 was a member named, George White, who was described by historians as a ‘militant negro’, George White made a famous speech on the floor of Congress in which he said, “This, Mr. Speaker, is perhaps the negroes temporary farewell to the United States Congress, but phoenix-like we will rise up and come again.”

His prediction was correct but from 1900 to 1928, not a single Black American sat in either chamber.  George white’s prediction came true.  In 1928, Oscar DePriest, a black Republican was elected from Chicago, Illinois.  Between 1928 and 1968, a period of 40 years until I was elected there were six African Americans in Congress when Shirley, Bill Clay and I arrived.  So for the first time in history more than 7 African Americans sat in the U.S. Congress.

This was the history that led to the formation of the Congressional Black Caucus which is now an institution in Congress.

There were many challenging issues facing the Congress in the early seventies.  Our nation was torn with our involvement in Vietnam, the deaths of 50,000 American boys there, poverty in America and President Johnson’s war on poverty, Watergate and the impeachment of a United States President, voting and housing rights, healthcare, rioting on college campuses by idealistic young Americans who were rebelling against a nation in which they saw people go to bed hungry while a military-industrial complex thrived with federal dollars.  There were many national issues which caused much debate and legislative action in the Congress – I served for 25 of my 30 years in a democratically dominated House of Representatives.  As a member of the majority party you enjoy many amenities of office.  It is not very nice being in the minority.  For the Republicans it had become very frustrating.  By 1994 when they took over the House they had been out of power and dominated by the Democrats for 40 years.

As a younger member of Congress I was fortunate to be mentored by giants in American history.  On both sides of the aisle leaders with seniority taught me the history of the institution, about civility and decorum.  They taught me that no matter how passionate you may become in debate that you must always conduct yourself with dignity, civility and decorum in keeping with the traditions of the greatest deliberative body in the world.  I was beneficiary of this type of mentoring by Charlie Vanik, speaker Tip O’Neal, Speaker Jim Wright, and many other giants in those hallowed halls of Congress.  Having been taught as I was I could not function in the Congress I saw changed in 1994 into a mean spirited environment promoted by mean spirited ideologues, led by Newt Gingrich.  One of the reasons I decided to retire after 30 years of service to this country was that I felt that I had climbed all of the mountains that I was interested in climbing in Congress and that I wanted to utilize whatever talent and ability I have into a more civil and productive environment than the U.S. Congress.  I have validated that decision over and over again.  I have even had many of my friends across the aisle say to me, “Lou, you wouldn’t want to be here now.”  Indeed, they are right.

I took great pride in having friends across the aisle.  Also across racial division.  One of my best friends before he passed was Tom Bevill, a white Democrat from Alabama.  I visited his district in Alabama and he visited mine in Ohio.  Tom chaired an appropriations subcommittee with billions of dollars for waterworks projects.  He had a project called the “Big Divide” that ran from Alabama to Louisiana to Mississippi.  It was the biggest water project in America.  It cost so much money that it was not a popular project in Congress.  One of the problems it had was opposition from minorities in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi that the project lacked inclusion.  I went to Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi with Tom where we worked with minority small business and minority leaders to work out inclusion and worked with the Congressional black caucus to help pass the legislation.  Later, I recall John Lewis who was Chairman of the Board at Case Western Reserve University and Ag Pytta, the President of Case Western Reserve coming to me in Washington seeking funding for a new medical building on that campus.  Tom Bevill’s committee appropriated $10M for that medical building.  That is what I saw as my purpose for being in Congress.  To help those minorities in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi and a University that sat in my Congressional district.  Unfortunately, earmarks such as this are no longer possible in today’s Congress.  But with the bickering and stalemate in most recent Congresses in my opinion the purpose for being in Congress is being totally thwarted by groups and individuals who see Congress through a different lens.  One of the most unfortunate reasons for the paralysis in Congress is that many people get elected to Congress by running against Congress.  They run on a platform that they are “going to Congress to get the government out of your business.”  They want less or no government.  So when these persons get elected they violate their campaign promise if they agree to anything or become any part of a deal or compromise.  This type of member prevents a moderate Speaker of the House such as John Boehner from being able to commit himself to a deal or compromise with the President or the Democratic leadership.  They have put him out of business.

Let’s look at what is being said about Congress and how do we go about changing it.

Mickey Edwards, a conservative Republican, former member of Congress has written a book which has gotten a lot of attention.  It has been discussed at a panel composed of former members of Congress on two occasions, one of which was held at the national archives.  The title of his book is The Parties vs. The People:  How To Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans.  When Mickey was on one panel he said he questioned the editors about their having the words:  “How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans.”  He said that he asked them, Where do you get that from?  They told him, “From your book.”

Mickey with good cause makes a good case against both political parties:  he says,

“We cannot go on this way.  We need to restore a sense of common purpose both in the federal government-in Congress and in the presidency-and in our state legislatures.  Democracy requires an openness to diverse opinion and a fostering of a vigorous debate.  But it also requires that each participant in the debate use his or her knowledge, experience, and judgment to make decisions for the public-not the partisan good.

Clearly, our democracy does not work this way today.  Our elections don’t seem to change anything because we elect our leaders, and they then govern, in a system that makes cooperation almost impossible and incivility nearly inevitable.  It is a system in which the campaign season never ends and the struggle for party advantage trumps all other considerations.  Listening to my car radio soon after Democrat Nancy Pelosi became the speaker of the House of Representatives, the leader of the lawmaking branch of government, I heard her tell a reporter that her goal was to . . . Elect more Democrats.  After the Republican victories in the midterm elections of 2010, the Senate’s republican leader, Mitch McConnell, said his goal was to . . . Prevent the Democratic President’s reelection.  “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term President,”  McConnell told the National Journal.  During the prolonged Congressional debate over Obama’s health care reform plan, Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, noting the bill’s unpopularity with much of the public gloated that the plan would prove to be Obama’s “Waterloo.”  When McConnell and DeMint made those statements, the country was at war and the economy was sinking into recession.  With many Americans homeless or unemployed, with high federal deficits, these government leaders’ first thoughts were of party advantage.”

In his book he writes of many events to make his point about how the parties have changed in voting.  He discusses how we have become accustomed to a political war that operates almost on autopilot.  Partisans began the battle over retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter’s replacement even before the President had nominated his replacement.  Members of the Democratic Party knew they would support the nominee no matter who it was; members of the Republican Party knew they would oppose the nominee whoever it was.

When Sonia Sotomayor was nominated, a Judge with a successful and largely uncontroversial records as a Federal Judge, Republicans and Democrats predictably split along party lines.  Bringing the whole matter closer to us Edwards reminds us of the actions of Congress shortly after President Obama took office with the nation in a near depression.  He says:

“When the House of Representatives, in the middle of a recession, voted in 2009 to provide a financial stimulus package in an attempt to stave off a worsening of the crisis and jump-start a recovery, Democrats supported the measure by a vote of 211-44; Republicans voted 168-8 against it.  There is again, as with judicial nominations, a general difference of opinion between the parties as to the best way to encourage investment and job growth; the typical democrat and the typical republican tend to bring different assumptions to the table.  But even given those different starting points, is it likely that so many different individuals, from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and constituencies, would find such an incredible degree of uniformity if not for the imperative of maintaining party cohesion?  With party leaders in the states holding power over the makeup of one’s electoral district, party leaders in Congress controlling committee assignments and the party’s purse strings, and partisan activists controlling party primaries, the pressure against exercising independent judgment is almost impossible to resist.”

Another opinion widely discussed in Washington is a New York Times bestseller, entitled, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks:  How the American Constitutional System Collided With The New Politics of Extremism.  This book is written by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, both are eminent scholars, highly regarded nationally.  They said that:  “watching the debt limit debacle led us to our title for this book.  As bad as the atmospheres were, the new and enhanced policies of hostage taking, of putting political expedience above the national interest and tribal hubris above cooperative problem solving, suggested something more dangerous, especially at a time of profound economic peril.”

[also quoting book:]

“The short-term consequences of the standoff were serious, as Standard & Poor’s downgraded the U.S. credit rating for the first time in history, noting that “[t]he political brinkmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policy making becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed.”  Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke weighed in as well, with unusually pointed criticism of Congress:  “The negotiations that took place over the summer disrupted financial markets and probably the economy as well,” Voters were, if anything, even angrier; a New York Times survey completed after the votes showed the highest disapproval levels for Congress since it began recording them, at 82 percent, with Republicans suffering voters’ unhappiness more than Democrats.”

Mann and Ornstein blame a great deal of this on Newt Gingrich and his takeover of Congress in 1994.  They say:

“What was Gingrich’s strategy?  He was both passionate about his goals and coldly analytical in his means.  The core strategy was to destroy the institution in order to save it, to so intensify public hatred of Congress that voters would buy into the notion of the need for sweeping change and throw the majority bums out.  His method?  To unite his Republicans in refusing to cooperate with Democrats in committee and on the floor, while publicly attacking them as a permanent majority presiding over and benefiting from a thoroughly corrupt institution.  Most of Gingrich’s colleagues in our dinner group, both Democrats and Republicans, were deeply unsettled by his description of that strategy, a sentiment many of his fellow Republicans shared over the next several years.”

The book discusses many of the causes of the current dysfunction of Congress including holds and filibusters in the Senate, money in politics and the news media.

Recently, here in Ohio we have seen the retirement from Congress of people like Steve Latourette, Ralph Regula and David Hobson, all Republicans, all moderate.  Each indicated that they could not deal with the new extremism of their party.  Each retirement was a loss for Ohio.  Each was in positions of enormous power and seniority within the dominant party in the House of Representatives.  At the end of this past Congress one of the Republican Party’s most highly respected moderate Republican Senator, Olympia Snowe, retired from that body.  She, too, has written a book.  It is entitled, Fighting for Common Ground:  How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress.  She had been in public service in Maine and the United States Senate for a total of 40 years.  In her retirement speech she said, “What motivated me to dedicate myself to public service for nearly two thirds of my life was the chance to produce results for those people who entrusted me to be their voice and their champion.  I found it exceedingly frustrating that an atmosphere of polarization and my-way-or-the-highway ideologies had become pervasive in our governing institutions, compromising our ability to solve problems at what was a time of monumental challenge for our nation.”

I served in the House with this Senator, Olympia Snowe, and while there she always worked in a bipartisan manner to achieve her legislative goals.  She further stated that:

“The bottom line is that Congress retains the same potential in 2013 as at any time in its history.  But it requires hard work to realize that potential, and legislators have to grapple with the major questions by working with the President, with the other side, and with members of their own party with whom they might disagree.  In recent years, the two parties have stood in monolithic opposition; Senators collaborate less; they hold separate conferences and caucuses and they meet less often in social settings than in the past.

The Senate’s path out of dysfunction leads through increased bipartisanship and cross-party consensus-building.  With the same spirit as before, only now working outside of Congress, I’ll maintain my fight for these improvements and lend my voice and experience as a consensus-builder and act as a catalyst for change.  It is imperative we make certain there is a real political benefit and reward to be gained for bipartisanship so we can break what has become the equivalent of the parliamentary gridlock in Congress.”

I think that there is concern in Congress about the dysfunctional environment in which they work every day.  Congresswoman Marcia Fudge announced at the City Club a few days ago that small groups are beginning to hold meetings together to discuss their differences and their perception of the problems.  A part of the problem is that they don’t know each other.  They have very little social contact.

A few days ago, at a Cleveland Clinic event former Senator George Voinovich and I sat at the same table together.  He and I had a chance to engage in this same conversation about a dysfunctional Congress.  George is working with a bipartisan group in Washington known as the committee for a responsible budget.  This Committee is dealing with debt and sequestration and is trying to bring some common sense, on a bipartisan basis, to Congress on how to reduce our debt and protect those in our society who are the most vulnerable.  Our debt is now $16 trillion and growing by more than $1 trillion per year.

Senator Snowe suggests a number of reforms.  She suggests that changes can be divided into two broad categories:  Senate rules and Congressional procedures, and campaign finance and political reform.

In her book she offers the following reforms:
• Institute filibuster reform
• Create a more open amendment process
• Eliminate so-called secret holds on legislation
• Pass “no budget, no pay”
• Require biennial budgeting
• Restore the authorization process
• Adhere to five-day workweeks
• Establish a bipartisan leadership committee
• Return to the regular order of doing legislative business through committees

Additionally she suggests a number of campaign finance and political reforms such as:
• Abolish so-called leadership PACS
• Establish campaign finance reform
• Institute more open primaries
• Establish redistricting commissions

She ends her suggested reforms with what I think is wise advice for all of us who are concerned about what has happened to our government.
Former Senator Olympia Snowe says:

“The bottom line is that there is no single remedy that will correct the processes and procedures of our system, and the suggestions in this chapter are far from an exhaustive list of the steps necessary to make our government work again.  But they represent a solid starting point for reforming our political system and Congressional rules and processes.  The question is, how do we provide the impetus for our elected officials to take this path?

The answer is, a relentless citizens’ movement demanding that they seek the common ground these perilous times demand.”

When I was in high school I was taught Civics.  That’s where I learned about government.  Unfortunately, too many schools no longer teach Civics.  When we studied the Declaration of Independence I was taught: “We Hold These Truths To Be Self Evident . . .”

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