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What Shut The Back Door To Congressional Compromise

President Reagan and House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill were able to forge a bond — something that has eluded President Obama and John Boehner.
Scott Stewart
President Reagan and House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill were able to forge a bond — something that has eluded President Obama and John Boehner.

Remember the important contributions Republicans made to civil rights legislation back in the 1960s?

They've almost been lost to memory. When Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the GOP presidential nominee that year, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, opposed it, and Republicans have never recovered their former share of support among African-Americans.

But Democrats couldn't have passed that law without Republican help in Congress. "The civil rights bill was essentially written in Dirksen's office," says Donald Ritchie, the Senate's official historian, referring to Senate GOP leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois.

The irony is that the compromise led to the current split between the parties that has made interparty negotiations seemingly all but impossible.

Bipartisan compromise wasn't always unusual. Before the 1990s, no major piece of domestic legislation — the original Social Security Act, the creation of the interstate highway system — was passed without bipartisan support, which reflected the creation of a consensus in the country.

Those days are over, of course. Now, congressional majorities typically seek to pass even minor bills without any support from the other party.

At crucial junctures such as the current debate about tax and spending priorities, top leaders are left without negotiating partners they know they can deal with.

"A good compromise requires a modicum of trust and a tone of political bravery, and even then is not universally acceptable," former GOP Rep. Bill Frenzel of Minnesota writes in a Real Clear Markets column looking back on bipartisan dealings that led to a budget reduction act in 1990.

But compromisers are often punished at the ballot box for deal-making, Frenzel points out — including President George H.W. Bush, as a result of deals he made with Democrats that led to the budget act.

"The electorate is impatient, unhappy and eager to devour its representatives at the least sign of weakness or impurity," Frenzel writes.

Leaders in Washington have always postured in public, using all manner of rhetoric to complain about the tyranny or calumny of the other side. But there used to be back-channel negotiations between party leaders that made it possible to reach a compromise in the end.

The last example came during brinkmanship over raising the debt ceiling limit in the summer of 2011. Because Vice President Joe Biden had earned the trust of Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell during his own long years in the Senate, the vice president was able to reach out and craft a last-minute deal that averted fiscal catastrophe.

Such instances are scarce these days. President Obama, who didn't have a one-on-one meeting with McConnell until 18 months into his term, has generally shied away from seeking personal connections with his political enemies in hopes of winning them over.

Historically, that's unusual. It's become a cliche that President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill used to hoist a few beers after long days of argument back in the early 1980s. The reality is a little more complicated. But there's no question they forged a bond of the sort that Obama has not found with House Speaker John Boehner.

Back in the 1950s, Ritchie says, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower met with congressional leaders much more often than the public knew. "He didn't advertise it because he was meeting with Democrats, [Sam] Rayburn and LBJ," Ritchie says. "Eisenhower was much closer to the Democratic leadership than the Republicans."

And congressional Republicans bailed out Democratic Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson on their priority civil rights legislation at key junctures in 1963 and 1964.

When Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the president's brother, initially presented civil rights legislation to the House Judiciary Committee in 1963, he insulted Republican members by noting he hadn't read or taken seriously their own bills on the matter. That left them in no mood to support the president's plan.

President George H.W. Bush, seen with Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, in 1991, was punished at the ballot box for compromises that produced a budget-reduction act in 1990.
Barry Thumma / AP
President George H.W. Bush, seen with Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, in 1991, was punished at the ballot box for compromises that produced a budget-reduction act in 1990.

But the chastened Kennedys let the committee's top Republican, William McCulloch of Ohio, rewrite the bill to satisfy GOP concerns. "The deep moral conviction of this fiscal conservative swayed fence-sitting Republicans as no liberal argument could have," Congressional Quarterly reported.

Johnson made passage of civil rights his top priority after the assassination of President Kennedy, but he still needed Republican votes to break a filibuster in the Senate. He found an ally in Dirksen, the Senate GOP leader. "Dirksen will go through his public acting process, take a licking and then be with us," said a House aide.

Dirksen quietly negotiated with the Justice Department for weeks, amending the bill just enough to answer conservative GOP concerns, but he withheld his public support until the moment when he knew it would have maximum impact among his fellow Republicans. "No army is stronger than an idea whose time has come," Dirksen said, quoting the novelist Victor Hugo.

But the deal sowed the seeds of future acrimony. As Johnson predicted, passage of the law meant Democrats had lost the South for a long time to come.

Only a handful of states in the Deep South and his home state of Arizona supported Goldwater in his campaign against Johnson in 1964. Since then, however, the South has become solidly Republican at all levels of government.

That has changed the nature of both parties. Southerners had supported Democrats almost exclusively for 100 years after the Civil War, meaning Southern conservatives were a crucial part of the Democratic coalition.

In fact, it was Southern "boll weevil" Democrats, working in concert with Republicans, who handed Reagan his early legislative victories, not his chummy relations with O'Neill.

But Southern Democrats of old could not break with their party at all times — not if they wanted to hold onto the committee chairmanships they often held by dint of long seniority.

Just as Southerners were open to compromise at times, Republican ranks used to include moderates and even liberals who were happy to deal with Democrats. "In the 1980s, you had people in each party who could talk across the aisle," Ritchie said. "There were more channels for doing that at the time."

Now, there is no ideological overlap between members of the parties. The most liberal Republican in Congress is more conservative than the most conservative Democrat.

Where leaders of both parties used to make deals by working in concert against the more extreme factions within their own ranks, leaders today have to worry that any compromise will be seen as apostasy and potentially cost them their positions.

"They want their conference to be united or at least to be largely in favor of something before they go looking for votes in the minority party," Ritchie says.

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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