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Women have a civilizing influence on Congress

"Is it possible that Congress would get more done if there were more women in Congress?” President Obama asked recently. Then he answered: “I think it’s fair to say. That is almost guaranteed.”

There’s no “almost” about it. Without a doubt, Congress would be a better place with more female members. Of course, women can be fierce partisan warriors (see Bachmann, Michele, and Pelosi, Nancy), but they often bring to the political process a sense of decency and a respect for others that is grievously lacking in their male colleagues.

One striking example: The female members of the Senate (now 12 Democrats and five Republicans) meet privately for dinner once a month. These days they can seem like renegade soldiers, meeting secretly in no-man’s-land under a truce flag while rival armies dig deeper trenches and hurl more incendiary invectives at each other.

“We are all a team as women,” Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, told CNN’s Dana Bash. “We may not agree on every issue, but that’s not the point. We know how to work together in the give-and-take of it and achieve results.”

The percentage of women in Congress has risen steadily but very slowly, and now stands at about 17 percent. On the state level, the numbers have dropped a bit. Today, women account for 23 percent of statewide officeholders, down from 28 percent in 2001, and 24 percent of state legislators, off one point from two years ago. One reason for this dispiriting trend is that women are increasingly frustrated with the hyperpartisanship that infects Washington and many state capitals. Snowe recently announced her retirement by denouncing the “political paralysis” gripping Capitol Hill and the “all or nothing” philosophy of congressional leaders in both parties.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, and former Sen. Blanche Lincoln, an Arkansas Democrat, were both attacked as heretics by primary opponents two years ago for daring to work with members of the opposite party. Lincoln barely survived the primary but then was clobbered in the general election; Murkowski lost the primary but retained her seat by running as a write-in candidate.

It’s more important than ever for women lawmakers to keep lines of communication open between the trenches. In this Congress, for example, Snowe and Sen. Barbara Boxer, a liberal Democrat from California, have cooperated on two useful transportation bills: a traveler’s bill of rights, and a law mandating tougher sleep rules for pilots of small planes.

Over the years, however, women have been most effective in highlighting measures that relate to their gender. Cokie’s mother, Lindy Boggs, spent 18 years in Congress, and she was serving on the House Banking Committee in 1974 when male members brought up a bill banning loan discrimination based on race, age or military service. Without telling anyone, she inserted the words “or sex or marital status” into the draft. She recounted what happened next in her memoir, “Washington Though a Purple Veil.”

“Knowing the members composing this committee as well as I do,” she recalls saying, “I’m sure it was just an oversight that we didn’t have ‘sex’ or ‘marital status’ included. I’ve taken care of that.” Her amendment passed unanimously — but it never would have been offered if Lindy had not been at that table.

The civilizing effect of women goes far beyond their specific legislative priorities. Murkowski told CNN that women listen better than men, and “the listening part of it is an important part of how we get results.” They are better at sharing, too: “I don’t think we have as much ego attached with who’s getting the credit.”

The monthly dinners are a critical part of the listening and sharing process. They were started by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who just became the longest-serving woman in the history of Congress. Capitol Hill can be a “lonely place” for females, she says — when Mikulski was elected to the Senate in 1986 there was only one other woman, Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas — and the dinners have always served both social and professional goals.

They allow the lawmakers, notes Mikulski, to find “common ground” outside the spotlight of rancorous floor debates or TV shout-fests. As a result, says Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, the women are able to “resolve conflicts the way friends do.”

Now there’s a concept. Treat rivals as friends, and actually listen to what they have to say. Washington needs a whole lot more of that, and the women’s team can lead the way.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.