HOW WE GOT HERE
It’s difficult to grasp in these days of a hyper-partisan Congress, but Capitol Hill was once a place—not too long ago—where Democrats and Republicans routinely worked together.
And here’s another historic fact to marvel at: The Southerners were Democrats.
For nearly three decades, before and after World War II, a conservative coalition of Republican lawmakers dominated Congress in common cause with the 125-odd House and Senate Democrats from the old Confederacy.
American lore tracks the birth of the alliance to the car ride taken by a group of Southern chairmen from the White House to the Capitol on Feb. 5, 1937. President Roosevelt had summoned them to hear his plans to pack the Supreme Court with six new justices friendly to the New Deal and his policies. The Southerners bridled at this presidential power grab. “Boys,” said Rep. Hatton Sumners of Texas, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, as they drove up Pennsylvania Avenue, “here is where I cash in my chips.”
“The gridlock is as bad as it’s ever been. We need the American people to break it.” —Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Since Reconstruction, the South had been identifying bright young planters, lawyers, and business executives, sending them to Congress, and returning them, year after year. The scars of war and occupation were too raw for the region to embrace the party of Lincoln, and so these young men were Democrats. In the rigid seniority system by which Congress operated, they eventually became committee chairmen—titans who ran things their way, and in their own good time. It was the only real way that the South—largely rural and retarded economically—could influence the nation’s affairs. Southern Democrats routinely chaired the most important committees: Ways and Means, Armed Services, Appropriations, Judiciary, and many others.
The “Southern Democrats represented a powerful establishment,” wrote former Speaker Carl Albert of Oklahoma, in his autobiography. It was “an interlocking network of landowners, financiers, industrialists, and professionals, all men of power, all men of white flesh.”
In the shock of the Great Depression, the South supported the New Deal. But it viewed FDR’s willingness to take blacks, Jews, and Catholics into the Democratic coalition with suspicion, and it bridled at the party’s support of antilynching legislation. Beginning with the Court-packing fight, Southerners joined with the Republicans to block Roosevelt’s domestic agenda. The 100 Southern Democrats in the House and two dozen Southern senators routinely allied themselves with the Republicans who, struggling to find political traction amid the New Deal’s popularity, were content to play the two wings of the Democratic Party against each other.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMITY
Republicans worked with Southern Democrats to limit federal authority, taxes, regulation, and spending, but there also were times when they worked and compromised with the North’s liberal Democrats. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 could not have passed Congress without the backing of conservative Republicans such as Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois and Rep. Charlie Halleck of Indiana. A Senate office building is named for Dirksen, but few remember the courage of Rep. Clarence Brown, a Republican from Ohio, who checked himself out of the hospital so he could cast a crucial vote for black freedom in the House Rules Committee. “Look out for tricks,” Brown warned civil-rights leader Clarence Mitchell, and then went home and died in August 1965.
Many Republicans found it fulfilling, even when in the minority, to develop an expertise that brought them high regard in Washington and the clout to advance the interests of their constituents.
Rep. John Byrnes of Wisconsin, the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, had a typically strong relationship with his chairman, Democrat Wilbur Mills of Arkansas. “It was a pleasant operation. You weren’t constantly fighting on philosophical or other grounds and issues,” Byrnes recalled in an oral history. “You were trying to look for ways where we could compromise differences and move along [legislation].… It was part of the thing that made life worthwhile and interesting. You knew that you did leave some kind of an imprint, because any idea that finally developed into a consensus, you knew that you were part of that process.”
The serpent in the garden was air conditioning.
The development of window units and residential central-cooling systems transformed the South and the Southwest in the latter half of the 20th century. Only 18 percent of Florida’s homes were air-conditioned in 1960, Polsby discovered, but 84 percent were cooled by 1980, as were thousands of new factories, shopping malls, and office buildings across the Sun Belt.