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Past Stalwarts of Congress Would Be Ashamed Past Stalwarts of Congress Would Be Ashamed

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Off to the Races

Past Stalwarts of Congress Would Be Ashamed

Most lawmakers today seem to have little sense of the traditions and responsibilities of the institutions they have been given the honor to serve.

President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O'Neill (directly behind Reagan) could work together despite partisan differences.(AFP/Getty Images)

photo of Charlie Cook
October 14, 2013

Conservative icon and Yale graduate William F. Buckley was fond of saying, "I'd rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard." At this point I would take the first 535 names out of the Cincinnati phone book over the current Congress.

Of course there are some current members of the House and Senate, on both sides of the aisle, who would have been a credit to any Congress, during any period of American history, but that list is small and over the last 30 years is getting steadily smaller. Increasingly we are seeing more members, in both chambers and both parties, leadership as well as rank and file, who seem to have little sense of customs, traditions, and responsibilities of the institutions that they have been given the honor or privilege to serve. We are seeing more and more behavior and tactics that truly bring disgrace on the institution. Much of the same can be said about this White House as well.

Having worked on, around, or covering Congress for a little over 40 years, I remember how Washington once worked. Even through presidential impeachment proceedings, contentious fights over issues foreign and domestic, the place actually did function. In my judgment, the wheels on the congressional bus first started wobbling during the 1980s, growing steadily worse over three decades. The infection originated in the House before being transmitted to the Senate by the constant flow of House members getting elected to the Senate, bringing the contagion over to the other body that previously had been relatively civil.

 

The House, a representative institution based on majority rule, could accommodate a high degree of partisanship, after a fashion, because majority rule means that the minority doesn't matter. Things could often be fairly unpleasant, but the place still worked. The reason it could still work, despite increasing partisanship, is because it was before the noxious so-called Hastert Rule (requiring a majority of the majority to bring a measure to the floor), which subverts the very concept of majority rule intended by the Founding Fathers, for what is, in effect, plurality rule, with the most ideological half of the party in the majority.

But when this partisanship arrived in the Senate, a body designed by our Founding Fathers to be a very slow and deliberate institution—the intention being that it should be hard and slow to move legislation in the chamber—the legislative process began to deteriorate because the rules and traditions of the body do not lend themselves to those using "scorched earth" tactics. Now, with Senate leaders atop their respective conferences who barely speak or disguise their contempt for the other and the opposition party, this toxic combination of forces renders the institution in virtual collapse.

One wonders what Henry Clay of Kentucky, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, Robert Taft of Ohio, Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, or Robert Wagner of New York—the seven former members recognized by Senate resolutions in 1957 and 2004 as the greatest senators of all time—would make of the body now. Relationships between Congress and the White House are always contentious, particularly during periods of divided government. But it still worked.

In his just-released book, Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked, Chris Matthews goes back and chronicles the complicated relationship between the Democratic speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, and President Reagan, six years of battles as contentious as any, before or since. But each man fundamentally respected the other as the leader of an institution. Matthews, whose liberal commentaries can remind many conservatives of fingernails on a chalkboard, is a first-rate writer and chronicler of modern political history, with several terrific books previously published. In this case, Matthews used his own personal vantage point as a top aide to O'Neill, but also draws heavily, and respectfully, from Reagan's diaries, recollections from key members of the Reagan team, and from the former first lady, Nancy Reagan. You close the book feeling like you had a pretty good idea of what happened and how the key participants felt and when they felt it. Worth the price of the book alone was the account (page 177) of then-White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker dressing down Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman after OMB's private ruminations about Reaganomics were pointed up in a William Greider piece in The Atlantic magazine. Let's just say that the language used by Baker would never be published in National Journal and would make a seaman proud.

Matthews ends the book with six conclusions that really penetrate the veil covering the Reagan-O'Neill relationship. Particularly striking was Matthews's point that both Reagan and O'Neill had been "brought up to show respect for positions of authority," that both men "preferred to play by the rules," with O'Neill acknowledging that Reagan had won the 1980 presidential election and Reagan understanding that Democrats won the 1982 midterm election, each giving the other his due with a degree of deference due to their newly, election-acquired political high ground.

The third conclusion was that "neither acted like a spoiled kid who when he's losing yells, 'It's my ball and I am taking it home!' " Another—with Matthews citing a lesson from his mentor, O'Neill's longtime and highly regarded counsel, Kirk O'Donnell—was "always be able to talk." Each man sought and acquired wise and strong advisers, with both benefitting greatly from that. Finally, noting that both were aging Irishmen, Matthews points out that Reagan would be the last president O'Neill would serve with and that "Reagan understood that this was the only presidency he was going to get."

There is nothing new about divided government; it has been the rule more than the exception for much of modern history. But how it is handled has changed—we aren't seeing adult behavior from any of the three corners of this House-Senate-White House triumvirate. Both teams would benefit greatly from reading Matthews's book and thinking about the lessons that come from it.

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