What Happened to Congress

When I first started working in Washington in 1977 it was a very different place.  I was a young staffer working for a freshman Republican from Utah, Orrin. G. Hatch.  He was full of fire and was considered an outsider at that time because he was a Reaganite.  That made him very conservative for the time.

The makeup of the Senate was very different.  There were multiple “liberal” Republicans from New England and the Midwest.  Southern Democrats were conservative.  The Senate was controlled by the Democrats with a strong majority but the voting patterns of many of the Senators in both parties showed just how diverse the body was at that point in history.  The White House had just been won by Jimmy Carter and the Majority Leader was Robert Byrd (D-WV).   Byrd was just left of center but the mantle of leading the Democrat Caucus forced him more to the left than he would naturally be.  The Majority Whip was a staunch liberal from California, Alan Cranston (D-CA).  The Minority Leader for the Republicans was Howard Baker (R-TN) and his Minority Whip was Ted Stevens (R-AK).  By today’s standards both would be called RINOs by many on the far right.

Looking at the makeup of the Senate you had the following Democrat members that were swing votes.

Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ)    John McClellan (D-AR)      Herman Talmadge (D-GA)

J. Bennett Johnston (D-LA)    Russell Long (D-LA)           John Stennis (D-MS)

James Eastland (D-MS)   Ed Zorinsky (D-NE)          Howard Cannon (D-NV)          

Ernest Hollings (D-SC)  Harry Byrd (I-VA)            Jennings Randolph (D-WV)

John Sparkman (D-AL)                        James Allen (D-AL)

These 14 members of the Democrat Caucus would probably have fit politically in the Republican Caucus today. They were mostly southern Democrats who were conservative on social and fiscal policy and hawkish on defense.

Over on the Republican side there were swing votes as well.

Lowell Weiker (R-CT)           Bill Roth (R-DE)                       Charles Percy (R-IL)

Edward Brooke (R-MA)        John Danforth (R-MO)            Clifford Case (R-NJ)

Harrison Schmitt (R-NM)      Jacob Javits (R-NY)                  Mark Hatfield (R-OR0

Robert Packwood (R-OR)    John Heinz (R-PA)                   John Chafee (R-RI)

Bob Stafford (R-VT)     

Many of those Republican Senators from 1977 would be more comfortable in the Democrat Caucus today.   Several of the Democrats would probably be Republicans.               

When you look at that lineup you see that 27 members of the Senate could not be counted on as automatic votes for their party on issues of importance.  They represented their constituency and were fiercely independent. This led to serious debate on issues on the Senate floor and the resulting legislation was normally a compromise between the two powers.  Rule 22 of the Senate, the ability of one or more Senators to filibuster a bill, was rarely used.

Juxtapose that with what we see today.  Rarely is there a member that bolts the party line.  Joe Manchin (D-WV) would be the closest thing to that type of independence. Each party leader expects his caucus members to toe the line and doing the public interest takes a back seat to the political advantages of each vote.  Power is what they seek and once they attain it, they do everything to keep it.  The Minority party has a single goal: Gaining the Majority.

What happened to make the Senate so hyper partisan today?  In my opinion it began with the Clinton debacle.  Bill Clinton was a great politician and when he was elected President, he had majorities in both the House and Senate.  But two years later he lost those majorities and being the politician that he was he pivoted and became more conservative.  Clinton and Republicans were able to forge a compromise and pass a major welfare reform bill.  It was with a Republican Congress and Bill Clinton as President that we saw our last balanced budget and in fact we had a surplus.  Democrats love to point this out, but they omit that his first two years in office had deficits.  It was the split government that forced his hand.

Then came the 2000 Presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.  We had the confusion in Florida and Democrats believing that somehow the election was stolen from them.  Factually every recount in Florida showed Bush narrowly winning but winning none the less.  But Democrats never accepted that win and became very partisan in their dealings with the White House.

In 2008 Barrack Obama swept to victory in the Presidential race and Republicans responded with a similar lack of cooperation.  Obama had a majority in both the House and Senate and so he ignored Republicans and they showed their disdain for him for and there was no cooperation.  He rammed through the Affordable Care Act (Obama Care) and two years later the Republicans gained over 80 seats in the House and we were at a complete standoff politically. Neither side was willing to budge and work together.

That brings us to 2016 and Donald Trump runs against Hillary Clinton.  By every poll and every expert Hillary Clinton was going to be elected as the first female President of the United States.  But as the votes came in it was Trump that was winning normally blue states and despite losing the popular vote he cruised to victory in the Electoral College.  If you take away the majority Clinton piled up in California Trump would have a majority in the popular vote.  I suspect the two most surprised people on election night were Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but for different reasons.

Democrats and liberals hate Donald Trump with such a passion that any sense of political civility is impossible.  There is much to dislike about Trump personally, but he has carved out some clear wins.  He was able to pass a tax bill that has revved up the economy.  He has forced the Europeans into trade concessions and his new deal with Canada and Mexico is one that is fairer to the United States and even an editorial in the Washington Post this week said Congress should ratify that new agreement.  He is locked in a trade battle with China and I am not sure how that will end but someone had to finally confront the Chinese about their unfair trade tactics. Unemployment has reached record lows for every segment of society and particularly for minority communities. Wages are rising and most critical they are going up in manufacturing.  But there is no acknowledgment by Democrats on any of these things and they are bitter and will oppose any thing the President proposes.

That brings us back to today and Congress is back from their summer recess.  We have major problems facing the nation.  We need to address immigration with a comprehensive bill that solves DACA, provides border security (that will mean barriers in some places) and gives those living here for many years and obeying the law and paying taxes a pathway to becoming citizens.  Social Security is running out of time until it hits fiscal bankruptcy. Health care needs to be tweaked (I don’t think Medicare for all is a solution) and made more affordable and efficient.  Some kind of gun laws need to be addressed and it needs to be bipartisan.  The Mexico trade agreement needs to be ratified. The budget for the coming year needs to be passed and just passing Continuing Resolutions shows that Congress cannot even do the most basic of its jobs.  

But instead of moving on issues that affect the American public the liberals in the House of Representatives continue to investigate Donald Trump and threaten to impeach him. I say threaten because they have not filed articles of impeachment and probably won’t because the moderates who flipped suburban seats from Republican to Democrat do not want to have to go back home and explain why they failed to address real issues.  The House will pass some bills that are highly partisan, and the Republican Senate will keep them bottled up.  Democrats will cry foul and say Mitch McConnell is blocking everything, but they forget that Harry Reid did the same thing to a Republican House and Chuck Schumer threatens to filibuster (Rule 22 again) anything that might look like a win for President Trump and Republicans.

It makes me long for the Senate of old where party labels did not mean much and Senators from both sides of the aisle worked together to craft key legislation.  In the end those bills would pass by hefty margins and neither side (liberal vs conservative) could claim total victory.  Passage was achieved by the dirtiest word in today’s politics:  Compromise

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