U.S. Lawmakers Head to Exits as Partisanship Trumps Legislating

Republican Senator Olympia Snowe
Senator Olympia Snowe, a Republican form Maine. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Congress is broken because scoring political points to tear down the opposition has replaced the craft of legislating, retiring U.S. lawmakers said in a discussion about why they are leaving Washington.

Two Republicans and two Democrats, representing the House and Senate, described their frustrations with what they called a supercharged partisan atmosphere that has helped them decide it is time to end their congressional careers.

With Congress’s public-approval rating near a historic low, lawmakers urged their colleagues who will stay on next year to listen to the other side and find consensus.

Both sides are “not building anything around the commonality of issues,” and “there is an overabundance of hate,” New York Democratic Representative Gary Ackerman said at a panel discussion sponsored by Bloomberg Businessweek.

The two parties have “become completely intolerant of the other side,” he said. No longer are fights over “good and bad” legislation. “It’s the fight between good and evil,” he said. Lawmakers “can compromise between bad and worse and terrible, but you can’t compromise between good and evil.”

“It’s all about winning the White House,” said Ackerman, who came to Congress in 1983. The attacks have become “vicious and vile. That is the dangerous place we are at right now.”

Seeking Consensus

Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, who bucked her party to help Democrats pass President Barack Obama’s economic-stimulus program in 2009, said seeking consensus with the opposition is no longer rewarded.

“There is a political price to pay for crossing the political aisle,” she said. “Today there is no reward for that.” Congress “can’t solve the problems and transcend differences. We have lost the art of legislating,” said Snowe, who has spent 33 years in Congress, first in the House and then the Senate. “We are not talking with people with whom we disagree.”

Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat who heads the Senate Budget Committee, said he realized it was “time for me to leave” when a senior colleague told him “your problem, Conrad, is you’re too solutions-oriented. You’ve never understood this is political theater.’”

The lawmakers also said television networks that cater to the political biases of their viewers contribute to polarization.

Fox and MSNBC

News Corp.’s Fox News Network carries Republican commentators such as political consultant Karl Rove, and MSNBC features pro-Democratic hosts such as Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz.

“People tend to listen to what they agree with,” said Conrad. Members of Congress “are probably the only ones who watch both Fox and MSNBC,” Ackerman said.

Lawmakers said they have endured pressure not to cooperate with the opposition. Ackerman said he has been asked by fellow Democrats, “‘Why are you co-sponsoring so-and-so’s bill? Don’t you know he’s vulnerable and we are looking to take him out’” in the next election?

Snowe said she has been asked why she has been talking with certain lawmakers about specific issues.

Representative Geoff Davis, a Kentucky Republican who isn’t seeking re-election to a fifth term, said partisanship isn’t new.

Rostenkowski’s Rules

When Illinois Democrat Dan Rostenkowski was chairman of the House Ways Means Committee in the late 1980s, “Democrats didn’t recognize Republicans” during committee debates, he said. If Republicans pushed too hard for a chance to amend legislation, “Rostenkowski would adjourn the committee and write the bill with staff.”

Davis, the least critical of partisanship, said Congress too often wants “to treat the symptom and ignore the root causes” of a problem. He said lawmakers will address the nation’s issues because “the greatest source of inspiration is desperation.”

Conrad said he remains optimistic. “At its best moments, the Senate is a place where people can come together,” he said, recalling the work of the presidential deficit-reduction commission headed by former Republican Senator Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, chief of staff under former President Bill Clinton.

A bipartisan group of senators who served on the commission agreed to support a plan for $3.8 trillion in budget savings, Conrad said. None of his aides recommended that he vote for the plan, he said.

While he disagreed with many items in the plan, he said he told his staff, “The only thing worse than being for this would be being against it.”

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