Wing nuts from both parties feed the
partisan frenzy in Congress, and wishing for the old days to
return is just yearning for more of the same.
For decades, I’ve told anybody who wanted to influence
Congress to just call the Capitol switchboard at 202.224.3121,
and ask to be connected to their representative or senators. As
the health reform debate raged into its dramatic 15th month,
getting through via the switchboard—or even directly to
members’ offices—had become virtually impossible.
It is painful to sit in the reception areas of offices and
listen to the poor interns getting lit up by constituents angry
Mind you, I share the sentiments of many of those
mad-as-hell constituents. Out of frustration, I’ve thrown
some gasoline on the fires of Council member executives who
believe that the health reform effort is the wrong prescription
for the country, and will undermine the employer-provided group
health insurance marketplace. I was doing much more damage than
good and utterly failing to “bend the cost
I’m angry over the demagoguery against health plans
employed by the administration and congressional leaders. But
beyond the reorganization of a sixth of the economy, I worry
that the health debate reflects a trend-line of nastiness that
will pervade everything we care about on Capitol Hill.
Amid this historic enmity, Republicans are surely set to
gain seats this November. That’s fine by me on many of
those races, but what’s happening is that Washington is
starting to look more and more like Sacramento—left-wing
Ds and right-wing Rs, and nothing in the middle. Most of the
most vulnerable Democrats are those in districts that John
McCain won in 2008, and they tend to be more moderate. The
elections could leave us with a Congress that is even more
polarized and dysfunctional than it is today.
Certainly, malevolence in American politics is not a new
phenomenon. Take the 1800 contest between John Adams and Thomas
Jefferson, a race that makes modern journalism look like the
model of civility and nonpartisanship. Federalist writers
accused Jefferson of being an atheist, pro-slavery, a coward
who avoided military service during the Revolutionary War and a
“romantic airhead” who would recklessly entangle
the young U.S. with revolutionary France. Later they circulated
the (true) story that he had had sex (and children) with his
slave. For their part, Republican newspapers, which were
pro-Jefferson, accused Adams of being mentally unbalanced and a
closet monarchist. They also circulated the rumor that he was
having prostitutes shipped over from Britain. If you thought
today’s campaigns were bad, look no further than to the
But for each of the 27 years I’ve worked on and around
Capitol Hill, I’ve heard increasing refrains of
wistfulness about the “good old days” when members
of Congress got along. I came to town to work for an incoming
member of the Reaganite Republican House minority in 1983.
Notwithstanding the stellar conservative voting record of my
boss, every time he had a political fundraiser, it was attended
by the liberal Democratic chairman of the Public Works and
Transportation Committee, on which my congressman was a member.
I go to a couple hundred political fundraisers a year now, and
I never see such a thing. Never. The last time I recall such a
gesture of bipartisanship, Rep. Mike Oxley, R-Ohio,
then-chairman of the Financial Services Committee attended an
event for freshman Democratic Rep. David Scott. (That was
likely because Oxley was a baseball fanatic, and Scott’s
brother-in-law is Hank Aaron, but I digress.)
The health reform debate has been analyzed up, down and
sideways. I’ll not belabor it. Perhaps I’m
philosophically wrong, and the legislation winds up having been
the right thing for the country. But it was President Obama who
said that he’d “rather have 80% of what I want with
70 votes in the Senate, than 100% of what I want with a
straight Democratic vote.”
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said
throughout 2009 that health reform had to be bipartisan,
because anything else was unsustainable over the long haul.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., warned
against the use of reconciliation on the same grounds. The
decision to seek victory with only democrat
votes—justified or not—poisoned the well.
After the raucous town meetings of last summer, Democrats
decided to pivot and demonize the insurance industry to push
their bill through. Among the many comments of Speaker Nancy
Pelosi was this doozy: “Of course, they (health plans)
have been immoral all along. They are the villains in this.
They have been part of the problem in a major way.”
The blue-faced rage against insurers pervaded the dialogue
and characterized the growing chasm between the parties.
A New York Times piece in
February summed up the situation: “As they try to govern
President Obama, democrats recognize in minority
republicans the same obstructionism they practiced at the
expense of President
George W. Bush and his party. ‘To be negative is
easy, I know that,’ Speaker
Pelosi told columnists recently in describing Republican
tactics. ‘That’s how we won the
Many would argue that gridlock and polarization aren’t
necessarily a bad thing, and there’s some truth in that.
Partisanship has reached perfect pitch; Congressional Quarterly estimates that
House members and senators sided with their parties roughly 90%
of the time last year. Ugliness, though, is another matter. As
a lobbyist for health insurance brokers, I think a lot of the
nasty environment flows from the vitriol of Democratic leaders
who squandered opportunities for bipartisan health reform.
The worst of it came with the two words shouted from the
floor of Congress: “You lie!”
Whoops, that was my team. My bad.
Wood is The Council’s senior vice president of