We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution. Abraham Lincoln

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Partisan Politics in Congress

In his farewell address in 1796, George Washington warned of the establishment of political parties. He discussed how a government divided into several factions greatly weakens the power of the whole. Despite these strong words of warning, today’s political system is riddled with the positives and negatives of party politics.[i] Congress in the first decade of the new millennium is the most polarized it has ever been. At no time in American history has either of our political parties been more isolated and farther from its counterpart, than today. George Washington was not predicting the future, political parties have been around since the earliest forms of government. With the exception of utopian societies, there is always, and will always be, an opposition force. That force may be big or small, but unanimous support is a rarity in the political world. Organizing around this opposition, parties are formed. The history of political parties in the United States is long and predates our first president.
With ties back to supporters and opposes to the rule of the English monarchy and extending through the federalist and anti-federalist stages of American history, the modern political parties have been through many changes. According to the Dictionary of American History, published in 1940 by author James Truslow Adams, the current Republican Party was formed in 1843 in response to a large growth of immigrant voters and officials in New York. The modern Democratic party evolved out of the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, originating in the later part of the 1780’s. Since the days of their creation, the civil war, European immigration, both World Wars, the great depression, and the civil rights movement have all shaped and defined the parties we have today. In the 1950’s and 60’s, southern Democrats were unable to rally behind strong party leadership because of dissention among its ranks on issues of civil rights. The thought process called “district first” really kept political parties in check. Much of that would change, beginning in the 1980’s.
Fueled largely by the highly public issues of the energy crisis and the Vietnam War, the 1970’s marked the starting point for many of the political party dynamics we see in congress today. A Democrat controlled congress passed legislation that granted the Speaker of the House control over the Rules committee which controls the scheduling and daily operation of the House of Representatives. Additionally, the Speaker was granted the ability to create temporary committees, to review legislation. This isolated control as each member of these committees could be hand chosen by the speaker, making it so findings could nearly be predetermined. The role of Party Whip became additionally significant as an increase in ranks was instituted to help usher party sensitive legislation through the process of inception. These legislative actions, combined with increased hostility towards a strong Republican in Ronald Reagan really forced the Democratic Party to organize and strengthen its role in the democratic process. Scores rating party cohesion for the Democrats in the 1980’s were the highest seen since at least 1954, when the observation of this statistic began.[ii]
Republicans responded to this push granting Newt Gingrich, a leader who many believed in and vested their support, the role of Speaker of the House in 1995. The role of Speaker had not been so powerful since the 1910 Joseph Canon revolt. The Republicans also changed the face of the Senate in 1995, creating a six year term limits on committee chairs.[iii] Gingrich also contributed something else to congress. He is the person who can be credited with making individual district elections a national issue. Gone were the days of voting the district first being an overriding ideology. Now candidates were receiving support and opposition from all sorts of national interest groups, making the focus less on the district itself and more on the issues that the candidate backed. This new trend forced political parties to further organize to make sure that funds were pooled and backed the candidates that represented the party the best. The unique ability of congress to create PACs to help fund and train potential candidates during election years demonstrates the importance of aligning oneself with a strong political party. This also put more emphasis on an organized and centralized party leadership that would need to operate strategically to gain and maintain power.
As unification along party lines became the norm, that polarization of the parties along ideology also increased. Ideological positions remained fairly stagnant from initial observations in the late 1940’s until the political mayhem in the 1970’s. From the 1970’s on, both conservatives and liberals have retracted to their respective bases as issues and changes in society have forced the retreat. Patterns also show that congressional support for the president has polarized with the political parties. These trends peaked around 2005 with President George W. Bush.[iv] The reason for the peak was issues surrounding the war in Iraq and other unpopular decisions surrounding the war on terrorism. Recently, Republicans and Democrats have again split under the leadership of President Obama. This is much to the dismay of both parties as the Democrats claim to want bipartisanship, but the reality is they don’t need it to pass the bills they want. The Republicans know this and have set their feet in stone and won’t budge on issues while remaining incredibly critical of the Democratic Presidency. Senator Richard Durbin comments on the lack of bipartisan support of the presidency in the following clip.

The role of the minority party as the opposition group to Presidential authority came under fire in the most recent decade. In 2005, Republican Senate leaders threatened to use the “Nuclear Option,” the process of changing the rules of the Senate by simple majority vote to prevent the use of a filibuster in certain situations. The Republicans held the majority in the Senate, but lacked the supermajority support necessary to halt a filibuster that was to be implemented to prevent ten court appointments by then President George W. Bush. In a rare show of bipartisan cooperation, 14 Senators from both sides of the aisle came together to prevent the nuclear option.[v] Senator Chuck Shumer discusses the failures of partisanship, criticizes the Executive, and highlights the victories that can be achieved through bipartisanship.

What does all this change mean? The trends are consistently pointing to a more polarized congress each day. Political parties are uniting under strong leadership and fighting an ideological battle that has not been seen yet in this country. Every district battle in this country now matters on the national level. This can be seen in the elections held to fill the late senator Kennedy’s congressional seat. Scott Brown’s victory didn’t matter as much to the people of his district as it did to the rest of the conservatives in the nation who counted on his vote to prevent healthcare legislation. Funding for the January election exploded as it became of national importance.[vi]
This also means that candidates are essentially required to remain in line with the goals of their political party. As more and more distance is placed between the two groups, being a moderate has become increasingly difficult. Issues have become Liberal vs. Conservative or Democrat vs. Republican. The media bombards viewers with commercials and ads from interest groups promoting one stance or bashing another.
A perfect case study for watching the polarizations of the political parties has been the recent healthcare reform bill. President Obama ran a campaign for office promising this legislation. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, arguably the most influential and powerful Speaker ever, took up the cause and worked diligently with the assistance of Majority Leader Harry Reid from the Senate and countless others. Through a highly scrutinized process the bill passed in the Senate first, with the only nays coming from the Republicans, then proceeded to the house where a reformed version passed in a similar situation. Democrats used the reconciliation process, a way of changing an existing bill with limited debate, to pass the Health Care and Educational Reconciliation Act of 2010.[vii] Even some Democratic congressmen worried about the partisanship of this process. Democratic Senator Arlen Specter discussed opposition from the authoring party about using reconciliation to pass health reform.


[i] Washington, George. "Washington's Farewell Address 1796." Yale University. Web. 15 Apr. 2010.

[ii] Jacobson, Gary C. "Elections, Representation, and the Politics of Congress." The Politics of Congressional Elections. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2009.Pg 241. Print.

[iii] Jacobson, Gary C. "Elections, Representation, and the Politics of Congress." The Politics of Congressional Elections. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2009. Pg242. Print.

[iv] Jacobson, Gary C. "Elections, Representation, and the Politics of Congress." The Politics of Congressional Elections. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2009. 245-254. Print.

[v] Dcdotcom. "Senate Rules Meltdown." CBS News. 27 Mar. 2005. Web. 15 Apr. 2010. .

[vi] Cillizza, Chris. "Scott Brown Wins Massachusetts Senate Special Election Race." Washington Post, 19 Jan. 2010. Web. 15 Apr. 2010.

[vii] Sawyer, Diana. "Exclusive: Pelosi Defends Health Care Fight Tactics." Mar. 2010. Web. 15 Apr. 2010.