The Perils of Partisanship

John Podesta
John Podesta

The incarceration of Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky has prompted editorial writers across America to lament the withering state of democratic institutions in Russia. Less observed and less reported are the relentless attacks on our own governing intuitions by a radical, reckless congressional leadership which threatens to weaken our own democracy. Just last Saturday, after the House voted to reject the Medicare bill, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) held open a roll call vote, scheduled to last 15 minutes, for an unprecedented three hours, from 3 to 6 a.m. During that time Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Texas) and others strongarmed bleary-eyed Republicans who had voted against the bill, demanding they switch their vote. As night became morning, Delay wore his opposition down, votes switched, and the bill passed by a narrow margin.

The handling of the Medicare vote in the House is only the most recent example of a larger pattern. Over the last few years, conservative leaders hell-bent on consolidating power have taken every political and legislative opportunity to push an ideological agenda – never letting a commitment to democratic principles or bi-partisanship get in the way of a chance to score political points. The result is an environment where compromise is precluded, reconciliation is elusive, sound public policy is a rarity and democratic traditions are routinely cast-aside.

The legislative process, which in the past – at least occasionally – has included genuine efforts to overcome ideological differences in pursuit of the common good, has been transformed into a partisan political exercise. The first signs of the transformation were revealed when Republican leadership passed over moderates of their own party in favor of conservatives for key committee positions. Delay ensured that the gavel was passed to Representative Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) over moderate Representative Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) in the Resources Committee, despite Saxton’s seniority. Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) was denied his request to continue serving on the Environment and Public Works Committee so that Senator Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) participation would ensure a solid block of votes against strong environmental legislation.

The conservative leadership in Congress now also routinely excludes members of the minority, and even moderates in their own party, from conference committees. For example the conference committee on the energy bill, to which 58 members of Congress were formally appointed, actually consisted of private negotiations between just four members: Senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Congressman Billy Tauzin (R-La.), and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Representative Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) on the tax portions of the bill. When the Senate passed a version of the energy legislation that was not to the liking of Senator Domenici, he bluntly declared, “I will rewrite the bill.” While a couple of members of the minority party were permitted to participate in committee negotiations over the Medicare legislation, those who did not see eye to eye with conservative leaders – including Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) – were excluded. The product of these secret conference negotiations – typically hundreds, if not thousands of pages long – is then sent to each chamber, often with 24-hours or less to review, for a straight up-or-down vote without prospect of amendments. Instead of providing meaningful time for amendments and debate on either bill, conservatives spent 40-hours demogaguing the issue of judicial confirmations – even though President Bush has had 98 percent of his nominees approved. The result has been not just the effective exclusion of the minority party (and the millions of citizens they represent) from any role in the legislation but also a series of poorly crafted, incoherent bills that are packed with provisions geared toward special interests at the expense of the public good.

Beyond being excluded from legislative negotiations, members of the minority party face punitive retribution for taking opposing positions. In a dramatic departure from the bipartisan tradition of the appropriations committee, members of the House who voted against the education and health spending bill this summer saw funding for roads, clinics and other important projects for their home districts removed from subsequent versions of the legislation. The decision will especially hurt the poor because members opposing the bill came from 42 of the 50 poorest congressional districts. Opponents of the bill believed that the measure would have given short shrift to schools and other key priorities at a time when billions are being squandered on tax cuts for the very wealthy. It used to be that voting your conscience was praised in Congress – now it is punished.

To make matters worse, the White House recently announced that it will no longer answer basic information requests from the minority party– even requests that relate to understanding how taxpayer money is spent.

Conservatives have also been a polarizing force in the political process. White House Political Director Karl Rove and Majority Leader Delay have aggressively pursued a national strategy to use control over state legislatures to consolidate congressional power through the redistricting process. In Texas, conservative state senators were encouraged to ram through a redistricting plan which, even proponents admit, was drawn for purely partisan purposes. When some state senators fled Texas in order to prevent the plan – which would dramatically dilute the voting strength of minority voters – from becoming law, Majority Leader Delay launched a frantic effort to enlist the Justice Department to track the fleeing senators down and arrest them. When the Justice Department refused, Delay enlisted the Department of Homeland Security, which should be spending time tracking down terrorists, to track down the absent state senators.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center shows that independent voters are growing tired of the policy consequences of conservatives’ my-way-or-the-highway approach – on issues such as national security, finance, Medicare and corporate malfeasance. This represents an opportunity for progressives, no matter what their party affiliation, to form a new working majority and get our country back on the right path. To do so will require progressives to reverse the current trend of polarization, reach out to broad range of the political spectrum and present a forward-looking, inclusive agenda to the American people.

John Podesta is the President and CEO of the Center for American Progress.