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From New Deal to No Deal

Opinion | March 7, 2010

In a recent New York Times/CBS poll, 75 percent of Americans disapprove of Congress’s job performance. This cynicism is not so much directed at a specific party, although each carries Hoover-like popularity, but rather at the overall Washington environment. Senator Evan Bayh’s recent retirement announcement only underlined the growing skepticism towards Congress’s behavior.

In addressing the reasons for his departure, the senator from Indiana candidly stated, “For some time, I have had a growing conviction that Congress is not operating as it should. There is too much partisanship and not enough progress, too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem solving. Even at a time of enormous challenge, the peoples’ business is not being done.”

Partisanship is healthy in a democracy. However, the hyper-partisanship of recent years has not only damaged people’s faith in government but also has proved detrimental to the country itself. On every major issue confronting the United States, including health care, job creation, education, climate change, and immigration, Congress has failed to act. Our elected officials seem more interested in scoring political points than in fulfilling their constitutional duties. Over the course of recent years, senators and congressmen have seemingly shifted their allegiances from country to party.

For those in my generation, a time without partisan politics seems like wishful thinking or even mere fantasy. However, one must only return to the Reagan years (as Republicans love to do) to discover a healthy relationship in a divided government. President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil were about as different as two men could possibly be. While Reagan was the proud leader of a new conservative movement, O’Neil was a self-labeled New Deal Democrat dedicated to preserving the legacy of FDR and LBJ.

However, these two polar opposites managed to work together on issues that needed to be addressed. They refused to use partisanship as an excuse for inaction, but rather, they viewed it as a crucial component of healthy debate. No better example can be given on the strength of bipartisanship than the passage of social security reform in 1983. The bill was not perfect, but it proved invaluable in extending the life of a bankrupt social security system. Reagan and O’Neil would often joke, “After six o’clock we can be friends, but before six, it’s politics.”

Today’s Democrats and Republicans are enemies all day, all month, and all year. Senator Bayh, while discussing his reasons for leaving the Senate, noted, “Back in the day they used to have a saying: ‘You campaign for two years, and you legislate for four.’ Now you campaign for six!” The sense of urgency that was so prevalent during the Reagan-O’Neil era has all but disappeared in this politicized Washington environment. Recently, a bipartisan Conrad-Gregg debt commission failed to obtain the 60 votes necessary to pass the Senate. Despite the fact that United States debt is at its highest levels since World War II, Congress apparently does not think that the subject is a matter worth investigating.

Six Republicans who originally co-sponsored the bill had a change of heart and voted against the debt commission in the end. The leader of the pack, Senator John McCain based his objections on fear of increased taxes. This is an astounding turn for the Arizona maverick that voted against the 2003 Bush tax cuts in the name of fiscal sanity. In light of tough primary challenges, many of these moderate Republicans have perceived the need to shift their positions to the right. Senator McCain often reminded us during the 2008 campaign, “I would rather lose an election than lose a war.” Now, McCain and his colleagues would rather lose an important budget debate than an election.

The country’s displeasure with Congress extends far beyond the multitude of major issues that have gone unaddressed, but to the behavior and conduct of its members. In recent years, minority parties have abused the power of the filibuster to block major pieces of legislation. The number of cloture motions being filed in the Senate is unprecedented. Since 2007, 214 cloture motions have been filed. To put that in perspective, only 90 cloture motions were filed in the last four years of the 1980s and 140 during the last four years of the 1990s. Despite the fact that the Democrats hold majorities on key issues such as health care and job creation, the relentless Republican hold on the filibuster will make all efforts futile. Contrary to what mathematicians may think, 41 is greater than 59 in the United States Senate.

The intense partisan bitterness on the floor in both chambers of Congress is only enlarging the disconnect between the American government and the American people. From Representative Wilson’s “You lie” to Senator Franken’s censorship of a colleague, the line between healthy debate and hyper-partisanship was crossed long ago. There is a growing disillusionment with the federal government and an expanding belief that Congress has become more focused on serving themselves and their personal interests than in serving the country. Senator Shelby has become the poster boy for self-entitlement. Earlier this month, the senator from Alabama held up 70 Obama nominations including important appointees to the Pentagon and the State Department, all to ensure that he gets a tanker contract. Senator Shelby appeared more concerned with bringing 1,500 jobs to Mobile than with equipping our defense forces with the personnel needed.

While Democrats and Republicans remain constantly fixated on each other’s polling numbers, let me provide them with America’s numbers. There are 47 million people without health insurance. Unemployment remains around 10 percent. We have a broken education system that ranks 24th in math/sciences worldwide. By 2014, our national debt will have interest that costs more than our annual appropriations for domestic programs. In the spirit of President Reagan and Speaker O’Neil, our government must act in a bipartisan manner to solve the urgent problems of today that cannot be pushed off until tomorrow.