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A few weeks ago I was on Capitol Hill in Washington, visiting congressional offices to urge continued support for a program I believe is highly important and worthwhile. In almost every office I visited, the members and their staffs were welcoming, congenial and receptive. However, at one point, as I was making my appointed rounds to the House and Senate office buildings, I got caught in a torrential downpour, with no umbrella -- not that it would have helped much -- and only a light jacket. I was in no-man's land on the Capitol grounds -- in between the House side and the Senate side on the East side of the Capitol. Within a couple of minutes, the few people who had been traversing the grounds had all disappeared.

As the rain continued, I proceeded in what seemed to be a solitary march. I trudged past the Capitol building, the Russell Building and the Dirksen Building, all three where, as a Senate staff member, I once had an office, and on to the Hart Building, newest of the Senate complex and my destination on that day.

But as I walked toward the northeast drive, where I once had a parking spot, I stopped to reflect, even though the rain didn't slow. My rainy-day reflection turned to Congress of years past and some of those I had worked with and observed.

Today, those who inhabit these buildings seem trapped in party-line straitjackets. Congress has become two political blocs, rarely reaching out to each other, more devoted to gaining or maintaining political power than advancing thoughtfully crafted policies. In a sense we have developed our own variation on the British parliamentary model, which is based on party control and discipline.

The tell-tale evidence of how things have taken this rigid track can be seen in the votes in Congress in 2009-10 for the Affordable Health Care Act and on the recent, largely unpopular tax overhaul. In both cases, votes were strictly party line. Two of the most significant legislative actions in years, both without any bipartisan support in Congress. This is almost certain to be counter-productive, reinforcing the political polarization that is the dominant characteristic in Congress today, and indicative of the weak leadership in both parties, both houses. Yes, there is some minor division within the parties and the occasional failure to constitute a solid bloc.

And, to be clear, I'm not making the claim that things were always better in the past. I'm not rhapsodizing about the "good old days." Democrats and Republicans have at times manipulated rules for temporary advantage. In 2013, Democrats eliminated the filibuster on judicial nominations below the Supreme Court. Republicans followed by changing Senate rules to keep Democrats from filibustering the Neil Gorsuch Supreme Court nomination. To allow votes on a number of judicial nominees, Republicans are abandoning the "blue slip" practice that had long given senators the effective power to block nominees for judgeships from their home states. Also, the GOP leaders have disregarded Congress's in-house experts on the cost of the tax bill and other measures.

As Congress reassembles, and with a narrow 51-49 GOP margin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell talks of bipartisanship, though it's hard to take that seriously coming from McConnell, who has consistently kept Democrats at bay. It was McConnell who set the tone for this era by notoriously saying that that the "single-most important thing" for Republicans was to limit Barack Obama's presidency to one term. Remember that he even refused to allow a hearing or vote on Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress voted more than 60 times to repeal or alter Obamacare, knowing that it would not get beyond a presidential veto. And, as noted, Republican leaders changed the Senate rules to prevent Democrats from a filibuster to block the Neil Gorsuch nomination.

These actions, and those of the so-called "budget hawks" who became fiscal parakeets by accepting the recent tax legislation -- which would add $1.5 trillion to the debt over the next 10 years -- illustrate the hollowness and hypocrisy pervading today's Washington.

As this mid-term election year gets under way and the tenure of an erratic president enters its second year, in addition to international flash points such as Korea and Iran, a range of important issues await action -- infrastructure, immigration, disaster relief, government funding, among others. Most of them would need a measure of bipartisan support to advance.

History is replete with examples of bipartisan support on major legislation, including civil rights bills and landmarks in national defense.

Forty years ago, the Senate was preparing for one of its longest and most contentious debates. Approval of the Panama Canal treaties came after nine weeks of debate, with 16 Republicans joining 52 Democrats, one vote more than the required two-thirds. Democratic leader Robert Byrd led the fight, but the Republican minority leader Howard Baker had an instrumental role.

That was courage and leadership, sorely lacking in today's stormy atmosphere. Sadly, the forecast is for more rainy days ahead on Capitol Hill.

Commentary on 01/10/2018

Print Headline: Trapped in Congress

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