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Drive to Win Trumps Good Governance

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Sept. 14, 2010

Drive to Win Trumps Good Governance

By Robert Weiner, Jonathan Battaglia and Noah Merksamer
Special to Roll Call


In today's politics, bipartisanship seems like a distant memory. Instead of getting a sizable chunk of opposition votes in both chambers on major legislation, the party in power has to rely on cloture in the Senate and essentially only its own votes in the House.


It was not always like this.


Until recently (beginning in the 1990s), we had consensus by issue, not by party -- fierce opposition and strong support, but not based primarily on party lines.


In 1935, more than two-thirds of seniors were in poverty, and Congress knew the country could not go on without protection for retired Americans. An incredible 92 percent of Congress voted for the Social Security Act, including 81 Republicans in the House. There were dissenters -- Rep. Daniel Reed (R-N.Y.) said that with Social Security, Americans would "feel the lash of a dictator." Sen. Daniel Hastings (R-Del.) declared that Social Security would "end progress of a great country." The measure passed 77-6 in the Senate, 382-33 in the House, and the rhetoric didn't end the consensus.


The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did away with segregation in government, employment and public schools and facilities. The bill received widespread support in Congress -- 70 percent voted "aye," including 136 Republicans in the House and 21 in the Senate. Republicans and Southern Democrats crossed party lines on both sides of the issue -- regardless of position, they were voting on the issue, not the party regimen.


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.

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