Listening vs. muting

Mute buttons are handy when watching TV and another annoying commercial comes on, usually at twice the volume of the regular programming. They proved invaluable during the past political campaign season to silence the onslaught of negative ads.

But as much as mute buttons have a place in the family TV room, they don’t belong in the Legislature. In the past couple of legislative sessions, the Republican House Speaker has had the ability to turn off the microphones on the floor with the push of a button. It was used to shut off acrimonious debate, especially in the closing hours of the session.

The new DFL House Speaker, Melissa Hortman, says she’s getting rid of the mute button. “It’s just a total violation of the culture of the Minnesota House of Representatives,” she told the Associated Press last week. “But more fundamentally it hits at the fundamental principles of democratic government.”

Indeed, the purpose of a legislative body is to conduct debate, to foster discussion and deliberation of differences and to seek solutions. It’s hard to find solutions when one side refuses to listen to the other, when the debate is muted and the microphones are turned off.

The best way to avoid acrimonious debate in the House is for legislators to listen, and listen respectfully, to each other. Legislators may be a little out of practice at this, but without a mute button to hide behind they may learn.

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