When Congress was debating Medicare in 1965, Sen. Carl Curtis (R-Neb.) called the program "brazen socialism" -- sound familiar? Yet Rep. John Byrnes (R-Wis.) told members of his party to "bury any disagreements or animosities" and "do their utmost to make the program work as well as possible." Ultimately, 72 percent of Congress supported Medicare's creation, including 70 Republicans in the House.
Under former Speaker Tip O'Neill (D), Congress moved legislation while a Republican president was in office. O'Neill, whose portrait still hangs in the National Democratic Club in Washington, D.C., allowed the Reagan tax cuts to pass in 1981 with 48 Democrats supporting it, but only after demanding low-income Americans be included in the tax breaks. In return, he and Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) were able to keep Congress from slashing Social Security benefits amid President Ronald Reagan's cuts in domestic spending -- it was an action of governing and bipartisanship.
In contrast, last year's health care reform did not receive a single Republican vote in the House or Senate. Instead of trying to work out differences, Republicans turned the debate to "death panels" and accusations of a government or socialist takeover of health care. Despite the bill's use of private insurance, no public option, no Medicare buy-in and 160 Republican amendments in the bill such as tax breaks for 95 percent of small businesses, the minority would not give the Democrats a vote in either chamber in the conference report. Democrats weren't flawless -- they let partisanship get in the way of including medical malpractice reform, despite Obama's public support for it. Regardless, in the past, a bill with such broad-based compromises would have received 30 to 100 Republican House votes on passage and 10 to 30 in the Senate.
Only three Republicans in the Senate voted for Wall Street reform in July, despite the financial meltdown a little more than a year earlier, and despite broad minority participation in the drafting.
This recent unwillingness to compromise began in 1994, with the rise of former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and the "Contract With America." House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), who is retiring this year, said Gingrich "changed the culture because the right wing started to push the idea that you could only be a Congressman if you were one of your people." When Gingrich did not agree with the 1995 budget, he ordered a government shutdown instead of a compromise. It was his Contract With America or no contract with America.
Former House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) earned the nickname "The Hammer" in part because he punished those who did not support George W. Bush administration policies. The leadership triumvirate of DeLay, Gingrich and House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) allowed Republican Congressmen to vote against the party only on lopsided votes.
We have entered an era when each party feels it must win at all costs, even when the country might lose needed legislation. The primary agenda of the minority party -- and likely both parties -- is to see the other defeated. If there were Reagan Democrats in the '80s, why can't there be Obama Republicans now? It's time to go back to governing by issue consensus instead of by party discipline.
KEY VOTES SINCE 1935 CHARTING BIPARTISANSHIP AND ITS DEMISE