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Why so many members see Congress as a 'toxic' workplace

Asked about toxicity on Capitol Hill, one House Republican said members should "get thicker skin" and move on from Jan. 6. That gets the problem backwards.

In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack, it became common to hear from members of Congress who shared an uncommon emotion: fear. While federal lawmakers have always been afraid of losing the next election, or perhaps seeing their legislation come up short, this was a qualitatively different dynamic.

The deadly insurrectionist riot left many members afraid of another attack. And of some of their extremist colleagues. And of weapons possibly being carried onto the floor of the U.S. House. And possible violence targeting their families.

The environment on Capitol Hill was unlike anything any living members had ever seen — and as CNN reported yesterday, conditions have not improved.

Many members within the House of Representatives have told CNN in recent days that they find themselves in a toxic work environment, wrought with bitter exchanges, threats and fears about what the erosion of decorum in the chamber will mean for a body that has still not recovered 10 months after the Capitol Hill riot. In interviews with more than a dozen members, CNN heard from Democrats and some Republicans who say things are as bad as they can remember, with no sign things will get better soon, and the fears and concerns aren't just coming from members, but their families as well.

Clearly, Republican Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona releasing a video depicting himself killing one of his Democratic colleagues — something that led to his censure — only made matters worse.

Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois said, "January 6th made things so much worse. I was on the floor that day. That was a forever life-changing moment on a personal level, but it was also a moment that changed Congress. It started with the incessant lies that weren't challenged and were amplified to January 6th to a member of Congress threatening lives of friends and colleagues."

What struck me as amazing, though, was a quote from Rep. Chip Roy. The Texas Republican told CNN that part of the problem is that members have not moved on from January 6th.

"People here need to get thicker skin," Roy said. "At some point here, you gotta let some things roll."

This is a difficult perspective to understand, and it helps explain why the toxicity on Capitol Hill continues to linger.

One can imagine, in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack, Democrats and Republicans putting aside their differences and agreeing that the assault on the Capitol was an indefensible attack on democracy. In this hypothetical scenario, officials from both parties also would have agreed to denounce those responsible for inciting the riot, and to reject the anti-election lies that fueled the rioters.

Perhaps, in this fantasy, some GOP extremists even apologized for lending credence to ridiculous conspiracy theories about President Joe Biden's victory, which Republicans finally would have agreed to recognize as legitimate without qualifications or caveats.

Except, none of that happened. The imagined hypothetical is a foolish mirage.

Chip Roy wants his colleagues to "let some things roll," which might be a more credible appeal if much of his party hadn't spent 2021 defending Jan. 6 rioters, undermining public confidence in their own country's electoral system, convincing the Republican base that Biden's presidency is suspect, failing to take governing seriously, and genuflecting towards the corrupt former president whose Big Lie has corroded our politics.

People on Capitol Hill "need to get thicker skin"? That's certainly one way of looking at the problem. An alternative is for some people on Capitol Hill to show some genuine contrition over what created the toxic work environment in the first place.