The recent death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was certainly a blow to his cherished goal of health-care reform. But it also could mean an end to the art of compromise in Congress.
For all of the vitriol that the right heaped on Kennedy’s liberalism, he excelled at reaching common ground with conservatives to pass legislation. There are few elected officials remaining in either party in Washington with a reputation as a deal maker.
Today is the 45th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, landmark legislation that has enabled the federal government to set aside more than 100 million acres as protected public land. That 1964 law wouldn’t exist without the efforts of Rep. John Saylor, a conservative Republican from Pennsylvania, and Sen. Hubert Humphrey, a liberal Minnesota Democrat.
Even though both parties today still recognize the need to be good stewards of the environment, it’s debatable whether that type of sweeping legislation could be accomplished again. Clean air is a good thing, but the political atmosphere in Congress has become poisoned with partisanship.
It took decades for the two parties to reach this uncompromising point, where the electorate has become increasingly polarized. With computer printouts of voting patterns, party leaders have carved up congressional districts to ensure maximum partisanship and minimum competition.
The result has been to put moderate lawmakers of both parties on the endangered species list. Twenty years ago, about 40 percent of U.S. senators were considered moderates. Now it’s less than half that.
One of the few remaining moderates is Sen. Arlen Specter, and you know his story. Maligned by fellow Republicans for years for playing nicely too often with rival Democrats, he was one of only three Republican senators to vote for President Obama’s $787 billion economic recovery act in February.
The resulting firestorm among conservatives convinced Specter that he couldn’t beat Republican Pat Toomey in next year’s GOP primary. So, he switched to the Democratic Party, where he faces a strong challenge from Rep. Joe Sestak, who pledges to behave more consistently Democratic than Specter.
Other local moderates, to varying degrees, are Reps. Mike Castle (R., Del.), Patrick Murphy (D., Pa.), Rob Andrews (D., N.J.), John Adler (D., N.J.), Charles Dent (R., Pa.), and Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.). Gerlach is leaving Congress to run for governor. That’s about it for around here.
America has crafted a political system in which significant elements within both parties consider compromise a synonym for weakness. Those members who dare to make deals risk their jobs to do so.
Democrats now have the majorities to push bills through, in theory, but that’s not the reality. Nor should it be. Part of Kennedy’s value was in convincing fellow Democrats to go along with compromises he’d forged with Republicans.
Congressional Quarterly, which keeps track of voting patterns, says Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate are setting a near record pace for party-line votes this year. There are few deals in that type of atmosphere. And that’s to the detriment of the country.