A congressman was shot early Wednesday morning while playing baseball with his colleagues in Virginia. The congressman, Steve Scalise, the majority whip of the House of Representatives, is in stable condition. Two other people were critically wounded. It wasn’t just an attack on members of Congress and their staff and police protective details but on one of the few vestiges of bipartisanship left in Congress: baseball.
Every year, Republicans and Democrats compete against each other in the Congressional Baseball Game. The objective is not to score political points but to score runs. The first Congressional Baseball Game was organized by Representative John Tener of Pennsylvania in 1909, who before his time in Congress played as a pitcher and outfielder for the Baltimore Orioles, the Chicago White Stockings and the Pittsburgh Burghers, and later served as President of the National League.
The game as we know it today has been an annual event since 1962 and has raised millions of dollars for charities. The irony is that while members of both parties fight against one another in congressional committee rooms and on the House floor, when they compete in this annual event, it is spirited but civil. There are no angry diatribes about left field versus right field. There are fastballs and curveballs, but no one beans a batter because of how he voted. The rules of the game are respected.
I know the power of bonding over sports on Capitol Hill because I experienced it. One day I was working out in the members’ gym (internet hoax alert: Members of Congress pay personally for this gym, it’s not a taxpayer freebie). I was on an elliptical and the congressman next to me was grunting on a treadmill. We’d never met, but we began talking.
He was Tim Johnson from Springfield, Ill. I represented Long Island. Representative Johnson was a Republican. I’m a Democrat. Around us, colleagues from both parties were playing basketball and handball. The two of us realized that in the House gym, members of Congress could engage in healthy competition, but as soon as they walked onto the House floor, civility and respect were lost and partisan warfare erupted.
We decided that if respectful competition in congressional sports was possible, it could be applied to the battle of ideas. So, in 2005, we formed the House Center Aisle Caucus. Once a month we brought together several dozen Democrats and Republicans over Chinese food at a local restaurant to seek common ground. Those casual dinners were liberating. We surrendered our sound bytes. We laughed (and groaned) at one another’s jokes. We came to understand one another’s districts and political pressures. We saw one another not as partisan warriors but as colleagues with different perspectives.
Sadly, the Center Aisle Caucus was swept away by the 2010 Tea Party tide, when common ground and compromise were electoral liabilities. But the lesson remains. Events like the Congressional Baseball Game help remove us from our partisan bubbles and connect as human beings.
It’s depressing that bipartisanship in Washington now seems limited by foul lines on a baseball diamond, that civility and respect are found only in the members’ gym and Chinese restaurants. But it at least demonstrates that there are still places where we can put aside our differences. There’s something about America’s pastime that unites members of Congress from both parties. I hope that today’s tragedy will serve as a reminder of what unites us, not what divides us.