Vanishing Giants in a Sharply Divided Congress

Wednesday, 01 Jun 2011 10:40 AM

 

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The long-gone old bulls of the U.S. Congress — giants like Democrats Ted Kennedy and Tip O'Neill and Republicans Everett Dirksen and Bob Dole — knew how to fight.

But unlike some of their modern-day counterparts, they also knew how to get along and cut deals to rein in the budget, save Social Security, reform tax and immigration laws, expand healthcare and enact civil rights.

With Congress and President Barack Obama struggling over many of those same problems today, critics question whether Washington has the ability to overcome bitter partisanship and find a path to cut spending, raise the $14.3 trillion U.S. debt limit and avoid financial calamity by an Aug. 2 deadline.

"When I was in Congress, we'd get in a room, ask each other, 'What the hell are you talking about,' say 'Stop your crying,' and then do something for the sake of the country," said Alan Simpson, a former Senate Republican leader who retired from the chamber in 1996 after 18 years of service.

"Nowadays, members are more interested in pummeling each other than working with each other. It's sad," said Simpson, who last year co-chaired the Obama deficit-reduction commission that failed to reach a consensus to force congressional action.

Today's obstacles to a debt-limit deal have nothing to do with lack of experience by those now in power.

Between them, Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner — three central players in the unfolding debt and spending-cut debate — have worked 85 years in Washington.

Rather, campaign fundraising that never ends, 24-hour cable news networks and websites that thrive on conflict and a polarized electorate have collided to make it tougher for lawmakers to find their way to a deal and a handshake.

Now, members of Congress seem more motivated by politics and point-scoring with voters than with policy, said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

He cited the Senate's Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, telling The National Journal last year: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."

"That kind of statement never would have been made by Everett Dirksen," Ornstein said of the Republican icon who joined with Democratic President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to find the votes to enact landmark civil rights legislation.

Despite public disdain for the backroom dealmaking of the old days, it is still practiced in Congress. Just look at how Democrats in 2009 and 2010 attempted to craft a climate bill that sputtered or the healthcare bill that was enacted.

But those earlier closed-door sessions were often more productive because there were more people willing to deal.

Paul Light, a political science professor at New York University, said that decades ago, dealmakers like Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Republican Jacob Javits "had the credibility to carry a group of votes into the room and say, 'I can get my people to follow this, so let's cut a deal."'

"You don't have that kind of credibility any more — you certainly don't have it" with the current crop of top Democratic and Republican leaders, Light said.

DISAPPEARING CENTER

The United States has had a history of the left and right airing positions that eventually lead to a moderate center. That is getting tougher with the rise of the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement that has pushed Republicans farther to the right and prompted Democratic Party liberals on Capitol Hill to dig in deeper on the left.

In 1970, 33 percent of members of Congress were considered moderates, based on their voting records, according to James Thurber of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.

In 2011, that figure stands at 5 percent, Thurber said.

"The extreme partisanship, lack of civility and comity and inability to pass legislation has occurred as a result of more individuals on the far right and far left being elected to the House and Senate," Thurber said.

And so as Democrats and Republicans attempt to eliminate $1.5 trillion annual budget deficits that have swelled the government's debt to $14.3 trillion, each side has entered the "negotiations" less willing to compromise.

Republicans say taxes can't be raised and they are not interested in paring defense. Democrats don't want to cut Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare and Medicaid health programs for the elderly, poor and disabled.

But the U.S. fiscal mess cannot be cleaned up without dealing with those massive parts of government.

DISDAIN FOR WASHINGTON

The public's disdain for Washington has, at least in part, driven the partisan divide in the capital city.

In the 1980s, Reagan, a conservative Republican, and House Speaker O'Neill, a liberal Democrat, battled over budgets, taxes and energy. But at day's end, they had a drink together and shared a joke.

Back then, most members of Congress lived in Washington year around. Democrats and Republicans golfed together and their families sometimes even vacationed together.

Democrat David Obey, who retired from the House in 2010 after more than 40 years on Capitol Hill, said: "It was difficult to say something bad about a guy if you were out the night before with him and his wife and kids."

Former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, who served in the House from 1977 through 2005, said in his heyday, the powerful tax-writing committees would hold retreats, invite administration officials and "talk in an informal relaxed, unforced way about these tough issues. We also got to know one another better and began to trust one another better."

The result, Gephardt said, was landmark tax reform in 1986 followed by bipartisan trade legislation in 1988 and a 1990 budget deal.

Times have changed.

A growing number of members now go home on weekends where they meet with voters and campaign. Rather than bipartisan relationships, they build partisan rivalries.

"Today there's incredible bitterness," Obey said. "There is less in the way of personal relationships. And that makes it easier to ignore the fact that the other guy has good intentions and may have a good idea."

Bill Frenzel, a former Republican congressman who is a Brookings Institution scholar, said today's issues — the country's staggering national debt, for example — "clearly are more difficult and you have a young group in the House, young in seniority, who want to be fierce."

Tea Party activists, Frenzel said, remind him of the big group of Democrats who entered the House after the 1974 post-Watergate elections. "They made it difficult for the speaker to do anything," Frenzel said.

"It took them a little bit to settle down."

© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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