The Way of the Hammer

It was a summer of odd political valedictories. On the night of August 8, Joe Lieberman bade farewell to his career as a Democratic senator, kicking off of his independent bid by blaming the "politics of partisan polarization" for doing him in. He asked citizens "fed up with the petty partisanship in Washington" to support his independent campaign.

Two months earlier, on June 7, another politician had offered a very different analysis of the current era. In his farewell speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, disgraced former Majority Leader Tom DeLay spoke of those same conditions of polarization and partisanship. "In preparing for today," DeLay said, "I found that it is customary in speeches such as these to reminisce about the good old days of political harmony and across-the-aisle camaraderie, and to lament the bitter, divisive partisan rancor that supposedly now weakens our democracy. Well, I can't do that." What followed was an elaborate defense of political partisanship -- "not a symptom of democracy's weakness but of its health and strength." Those who take ideology and policy seriously, DeLay argued, welcome political combat. "[C]ompromise and bipartisanship are means, not ends," he said. "It is not the principled partisan, however obnoxious he may seem to his opponents, who degrades our public debate, but the preening, self-styled statesman who elevates compromise to a first principle."

Liberals have no love for DeLay. But honest ones reading that last, killer line -- and thinking for a moment of the unctuous senator from Connecticut -- should admit: This time, the Hammer nailed it.

If DeLay's political legacy -- extreme when it adhered to actual conservative ideological tenets, merely corrupt and venal when it frequently veered away from them -- is odious to liberals, his institutional legacy would seem nearly as lamentable. Over 12 years, Republicans have carried out a remarkable (if incomplete) transformation of Congress into a ruthlessly partisan legislating body, in which the minority party is shut out of the process as a rule, power is heavily concentrated in the party leadership, and deliberation, compromise, and basic civility are left on the scrap heap. The situation represents a stark deviation from the American norm -- a tradition of weak parties, decentralized power sources, and procedural cumbersomeness. And it has elicited howls of outrage from both Democrats and from nonpartisan observers who came up through a very different era.

But liberals, as opposed to Democrats, have some reason to dissent from the outrage. There is a strong case to be made that the neoparliamentary thrust of the trends that Republicans have either initiated or accelerated offers opportunities that the party of activist government is better suited to exploit. The 20th-century era of towering committee barons, of coalitions and deal-making, of legislation slowed to a crawl through procedural impediments meant to foster "deliberation" -- the arrangements whose disappearance Lieberman lamented -- in fact offered a terrible institutional arrangement for the prospects of liberal reform. Conservative Republicans have reversed some of those arrangements in ways conducive to the prospects of liberal reform. This is not merely an irony to note. It's an opportunity to be seized.

* * *

Whining about partisan rancor in Washington is a stale cliché, but like a lot of clichés, it's true: Partisanship actually is more severe now than it used to be. As political scientist Barbara Sinclair shows, the proportion of House votes in which a majority of Democrats voted against a majority of Republicans increased by half from the 1969-1980 period to 1990-2004; within that latter period, party cohesion on votes reached averages of about 90 percent. And between 1975 and 2004, the ideological distance between the two parties in the House (using the so-called Poole-Rosenthal measurement of ideology) expanded by nearly 50 percent.

Analysts debate the reasons for this development -- gerrymandering, geographical "sorting" along ideological lines, the conservative movement, even rising economic inequality -- but everybody agrees that the central cause was the partisan realignment of the South. The exodus of the Dixiecrats depleted the Democratic Party of an ideologically conservative wing while ensuring closer numerical parity between the two parties. The institutional effects in Congress of growing partisan polarization began occurring in step with the unfolding regional process of realignment. By the 1980s, party-line voting began increasing significantly.

That decade also saw the first real signs of polarization's effect on the structures of power in Congress. In the old days, congressional party leaders had enjoyed little power (exceptions, like Lyndon Johnson, bucked the norm through sheer personal will). But Watergate-era reforms pushed by liberals and northerners had served to smash the absolute authority of the (disproportionately southern and conservative) committee chairmen. By the 1980s, an increasingly ideologically coherent Democratic majority began to support measures centralizing power in the party leadership. More bills were passed under "suspension of the rules," and floor activity was reined in. Speaker Jim Wright accelerated the use of such hard-line practices in the late 1980s, famously provoking the outrage and indignation of the Republican minority when he kept the clock running -- once -- for an extra 15 minutes on a vote.

That incident was famous in its day, but it has gained a newfound notoriety in retrospect for its delicious irony: The same Republicans who cried foul at Wright's gambit eventually took over Congress, and they have employed the same tactics to an exponentially greater extent. House Republicans kept the vote open nearly three hours past the limit during the early morning vote for the Medicare drug bill in 2003, and that was hardly an outlier. A recent House Rules Committee minority staff report, "Broken Promises: The Death of Deliberative Democracy," goes to exhaustive lengths to document the abuse: midnight voting, minority members shut out of conference committees, the use of "emergency" procedures for routine lawmaking, bills put to a vote under "closed rule" (meaning no amendments allowed).

Moreover, from Day 1 of the Republican Revolution, party leaders in the House moved to centralize power in the leadership. Changes originally pushed by Speaker Newt Gingrich ended strict seniority procedures for determining committee ranks among GOP members and placed term limits on committee chairmanships. As effective control of the House passed from Gingrich to DeLay, committees were brought even more plainly under leadership's thumb. DeLay stripped members of chairmanships (Chris Smith of the Veterans Affairs Committee most recently) or blocked members from ascending to them as punishment for going off the reservation. Speaker Dennis Hastert has explicitly stated that he considers it part of his duty to push only legislation that is supported by a "majority of the majority" -- a majority, that is, of his Republican caucus. In a constitutional system that requires any bill to jump a large number of hoops in order to become legislation, the changes Republicans have initiated constitute a dramatic effort to push against these institutional biases. The result has made the House, in Sinclair's words, "a lean, mean partisan legislative machine," with attributes that have invited comparisons to parliamentary systems.

The GOP-controlled Senate, meanwhile, though still comparatively decentralized, has moved in the same direction. Committee chairmen, no longer determined by strict rules of seniority, are expected to toe the party line, and partisanship has become central to Senate lawmaking in ways it wasn't before. Moreover, Republicans have brought enormous pressure to bear on customs and institutions that have long made the Senate uniquely cumbersome and treacherous terrain for legislation -- most importantly, the filibuster. Republicans' 2005 determination to exercise the "nuclear option" to ban judicial filibusters was as dramatic a sign as any of the basic changes the Senate has undergone under Republican rule.

* * *

The response to all this from both internal and external observers has been predictable. Democrats suffering the ruthless abuse of a tyrannical and exclusionary majority party have cried foul, in increasingly dire tones. Language venerating America's glorious constitutional system permeates congressional Democratic refrains about the majority's "abuse of power." Last year's fight in the Senate over the "nuclear option" took that pattern to a new extreme when Democrats resisting the GOP's gambit articulated a full-bore celebration of the filibuster, that tool perhaps best known in American history for blocking passage of civil-rights bills.

Outside observers' responses have been similarly alarmed. Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin's new book Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship Is Poisoning the House of Representatives terms the House "dysfunctional" because moderates have been squeezed out of the process and incivility among members is rampant. The venerable Congress scholars and old-school institutionalists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have teamed up to offer a critique of the legislative branch that is more substantive than Eilperin's but similar in outlook. In The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, the authors, to their credit, emphasize that polarization has real structural and demographic causes, and isn't the result merely of contemporary politicians being mean.

The authors are persuasive in several respects. But perspective matters. Ornstein and Mann write as self-avowed "institutional partisans" rather than ideologically influenced analysts. But in theirs as in so many similar critiques, ideological presumptions are unmistakable. They are alarmed at "the gradual collapse of the center in Congress, as the parties became more homogenous by shredding sizable shares of their moderates and moving toward the respective ends of the ideological spectrum." They also lament the replacement of members who care about "compromise" and "institutional health" with "activists" and "ideologues."

Is this really a complaint a liberal would, or should, share regarding the Democratic Party? Much of the evidence the authors marshal for institutional decline and dysfunction in Congress is more sensibly interpreted by liberals as illustration that the Republican Party is malign -- committed to an agenda that prioritizes corporate interests over the common good. The remedy to GOP misrule is not institutional reform but political defeat for the misrulers.

* * *

Indeed, liberals might assess future democratic rule of Congress not with a commitment to specific, abstract principles of process and democratic theory, but rather with an eye toward policy outcomes. From this perspective, a truth emerges: The changes Republicans have wrought in power are, in the long run, better suited to liberals, because the ideology of activist government stands more to gain than conservatism from institutions that allow for easier passage of new laws.

This was the original belief of postwar liberal Democrats in the previous century, who, in an underappreciated irony documented by historian Julian Zelizer, spent the 1950s and 1960s pushing for many of the same changes that conservative Republicans have attempted or achieved in the last decade: curbing committee chairs' power, centralizing authority in the party leadership, eliminating the filibuster, and more. As Zelizer put it, liberals inside and outside of Congress "believed in strong centralized parties as offering the best hope for a strong federal government."

Their critique was specifically borne of frustration with the southern Democrats who had taken control of the committee process by the late 1930s. But the broader connection they identified between the decentralized committee system and inaction on various progressive fronts -- from civil rights to labor law to health care -- was well founded. It was also buttressed by the postwar political science establishment, which issued a famous report in 1950 calling for a system of two "responsible parties" -- cohesive, centralized institutions, each committed to a coherent and distinct national policy agenda. This is a forgotten history that liberals would do well to mine.

If one merely accepts two claims -- that a streamlined legislative process helps whichever party holds power, and that simply hoping for Republicans to reform their behavior and revive traditions of bipartisan compromise is daft -- the case for Democrats approaching their return to power in 2007 or 2009 or 2011 with a mind toward DeLay-style parliamentary ruthlessness is clear. But given basic truths about social policy, one can make an even stronger positive claim: Liberalism will benefit more from such arrangements than conservatism.

An enormous amount of political science literature has shed light on an empirical fact of modern welfare states: Expansions of broad-based social insurance and welfare-state programs, once enacted, prove virtually impossible to roll back. Middle-class entitlements and social policies produce constituencies that, in turn, provide those programs with immense political durability. This explains the famous invulnerability of Social Security and Medicare to political assault (reconfirmed by the GOP's disastrous privatization campaign last year).

The trick is to get them enacted in the first place. And the American legislative process, by the Founders' deliberate design, makes it more difficult to pass new laws than virtually any other advanced democracy in the world. It is not a coincidence that the United States has always also had a comparatively weaker welfare state than other advanced democracies. Public majorities in the United States have expressed support for a national health-care system for decades, for example, yet every single effort to enact such a system has crashed on the shoals of Congress. Why? Because the extensive array of veto points and cumbersome requirements placed along the American legislative obstacle course -- the committee process, required passage in two legislative chambers, the counter-majoritarian features of both chambers, the presidential veto -- have enabled vested interests opposing such a reform to kill legislation time and again. As political scientists Sven Steinmo and Jon Watts put it in 1994, reflecting on the wreckage of Hillarycare, the United States lacks universal health care because "American political institutions are structurally biased against this kind of comprehensive reform."

They went on to make a broader claim: "The game of politics in America is institutionally rigged against those who would use government." Rather, was rigged: What is indeed curious about the contemporary scene is that conservative Republicans have been the ones who have worked diligently to reverse many of the institutional features that have historically served to limit government activism in America. And thus have the conservative neoparliamentarians done some of liberalism's prep work for it.

* * *

Enough abstraction. What kinds of policies are actually in the offing, should Democrats reclaim power and bolster the neoparliamentary tendencies of the GOP? The Democrats' proclaimed agenda includes reforming the Medicare drug entitlement, funding alternative energy initiatives, and passing a minimum wage hike. Realistically, however, the next two years of divided government following a Democratic congressional takeover in November would offer little opportunity for major legislative achievements. The neoparliamentary approach is really viable only during periods of unified government -- and it's not beyond imagining that such a moment could happen as early as 2009.

In that context, party discipline, pressure brought to bear on committee chairs and other independent sources of power, coordination between a Democratic presidential administration and congressional leadership behind a legislative agenda, a disposition toward minimizing impediments to legislative action (including extensive amendments and open debate), and a recourse to including minority party participation primarily when such inclusion is instrumentally useful for passing legislation could all spell the difference between success and failure. Down the road, two other policies of enormous consequence may require such an approach. Labor-law reform -- particularly the official sanctioning of card-check unionization procedures -- could fundamentally bolster the cause of the American labor movement. And sooner rather than later, health care will return to the fore.

Are there signs that Democratic leaders will sustain the strong-arm partisan practices of their GOP oppressors? The indications are mixed. Clearly, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid -- for all the carping about indecisiveness and disunity that continues to plague the party -- preside over congressional Democratic caucuses that are more cohesive than perhaps ever before. Both leaders, moreover, have actively sought to bolster those tendencies and forge stark contrasts with the ruling party in much the manner of the opposition in a parliamentary system.

They have also made more concerted efforts than their predecessors to keep their caucuses in line. Eilperin recounts with horror the notable 2004 incident when Pelosi came very close to stripping conservative Democrat Collin Peterson's ranking membership on the Agricultural Committee for failure to pay his dues to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The year after that she replaced moderate Ben Cardin with Sander Levin on the Social Security subcommittee of House Ways and Means because Levin was considered a more reliable point person for the caucus's uncompromising pushback against privatization. And when the new Congress convenes in January, Jane Harman may no longer be the top-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, after one too many ventures in the direction of capitulation to the majority.

At the same time, Democrats have a respect for the traditions of the institution that is at least partly genuine. Paeans to the august, deliberative Senate and the democratic "people's House," however opportunistic they may be as minority boilerplate, actually resonate with many in the party. There's strong indication that, in the event of a takeover, Pelosi would be inclined to disperse power to the many veteran Democrats of her generation who would ascend to the key committee positions -- particularly on Appropriations, which Pelosi had originally used as a base of power and fund raising when ascending the leadership ranks. "Pelosi owes her power to Appropriations," one Democratic House aide put it to me. "She's wedded to that process -- to the committee process. She would still be if she became speaker."

For what it's worth, moreover, Democrats certainly claim they'll soften the partisan rancor and majority ruthlessness if they take control in Congress. Pelosi told CongressDaily in May that she intended "to come as close as you can in the political reality to a bipartisan management of the House," while highlighting House Democrats' proposed Minority Party Bill of Rights. Such rhetoric serves obvious political purposes (Republicans sounded the same notes prior to their 1994 takeover). Whether such claims are offered in bad faith remains to be seen.

Democrats' behavior may depend in part on the signals and expectations they perceive to be coming from constituents, observers, and activists. It's that last category that could stand a bit of reeducation in the tradition of liberal reformers who venerated partisanship as a positive good. This is, after all, ultimately an argument for liberals to have confidence in their own ideology -- and to become re-acclimated to a basic comfort with power. Tom DeLay, for all his egregious faults, was a man who took political struggle seriously and respected his ideological adversaries. As he put it in his farewell speech, "Liberalism, after all, whatever you may think of its merits, is a political philosophy and a proud one with a great tradition in this country, with a voracious appetite for growth." It's past time that liberals reclaimed as their own the institutional mechanisms to feed that appetite.

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