Gangs Fill Congress's Comity Vacuum

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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In my column this week, I tell a story of cross-party friendship in the U.S. Senate. Here's another sign that partisan rancor hasn't entirely taken over Congress: The proliferation of gangs.

Their members are mainly middle-aged white male politicians, who assemble in bipartisan groupings to try to overcome pervasive legislative gridlock with private deals.

There was the Gang of Six -- three senators from each party plus a walk-on from time to time -- which tried to forge a budget deficit-reduction plan last year. There also was the Gang of Eight on immigration and the Gang of Two on guns. In the House, 11 separate bipartisan working groups were formed to consider tax overhaul.

"This is necessary because the regular order is so poisoned with partisanship that you have to go outside to get anything done," says Kent Conrad, the former North Dakota Democratic senator who retired this year. "It's the only chance to get a coalition of the willing."

So far, the success is mixed. The Gang of Eight reached an accord on immigration that probably will form the basis for Senate action this year. The Gang of Two -- Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, and Senator Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican -- spearheaded an effort to require background checks for firearm purchases as part of a broad gun-control measure. It failed last week.

The deficit-reduction gang, facing constant resistance from the Senate leadership on both sides, has gotten nowhere. And despite the bipartisan working groups, there is a lot of skepticism about the prospects for achieving significant tax reform in this Congress.

This isn't a new phenomenon. It took a bipartisan outside commission to make Social Security reforms in 1983, and a 1991 tax increase was conceived by the Bush administration and members of Congress during private negotiations at Andrews Air Force Base. But these gangs are much more common today.

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Albert R Hunt at