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Why Talk of Bipartisanship in the House is Likely to Remain Just That - Talk


Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2006

Will recent talk of bipartisanship bear fruit? Sadly, my own experience in Congress suggests the answer is most likely no.

My Experience In Congress: Marked By a Lack of Bipartisanship

One of the most interesting weekends I spent during the eight years I served in the House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003, was the weekend of the bipartisan retreat. Held at the secluded Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, the retreat took place in early 1997, at the start of the 105th Congress -- only the second Congress under Republican control since the mid-1950s.

Although the retreat brought together only about half of the 435 Members of the House, it was a remarkable event at which both Speaker Gingrich and Minority Leader Dick Gephardt spoke eloquently about the need to work together in a bipartisan way on those matters of overriding concern to the American people. The weekend also offered those of us present, and our families, a rare glimpse into the familial lives of our counterparts on the other side of the aisle - a barrier all-too-rarely crossed theretofore while on the job in the nation's Capitol.

But the goodwill lasted not much longer than that weekend in White Sulphur Springs; and although two subsequent, and similarly bipartisan, retreats took place before I left the Congress in early 2003, each drew fewer Members than the one preceding it.

Perhaps if the first retreat had been held in the 104th Congress, before animosities became cast in concrete in the first months after Newt took the Speaker's gavel in January 1995 hardened, it could have softened the tone of distrust that prevailed throughout those years. However, the anger that manifested itself - sometimes in physical altercations and name-calling - during those initial months of a Congress under Republican management for the first time in four decades, probably was too raw to have even allowed for something called a "bipartisan retreat" to be considered as anything more than a bad joke during the 104th Congress.

The Reasons Congress' Spirit Was Anything But Bipartisan

To some extent, the ill-will that pervaded Capitol Hill throughout that 104th Congress - especially the First Session - was understandable. After all, the Democrats' hold on power in the House was deep and secure; it was considered their birthright. Few outside Newt's inner circle of advisors had any inkling of the massive shift of power that was brewing in the weeks leading to the 1994 elections. Indeed, many Democrats didn't quite realize what had hit them even when the November 1994 tsunami arrived. Many in the new minority refused for months thereafter to believe it was more than a temporary tremor that would be rectified in the 1996 elections; and their willingness to even consider working with those in the new majority was thus nonexistent.

On the other side of the aisle, factors that might have facilitated some form of rapprochement were similarly absent. Not a single Republican serving in that new majority had served in the House the last time their party had controlled the body, in the 1950s. They were, therefore, completely unfamiliar with the concept of wielding power in any manner at all, much less with the concept of how to do so in a way that would reflect their confidence that they would retain the majority, yet still allow the minority some measure of influence.

The Cost of Alienating the Minority Party

This complex chemistry in the first Congress after the parties switched roles resulted in a series of lost opportunities, and of confrontations in which the Republicans, despite being led by the highly-intelligent Newt Gingrich, were bested not by their Democrat colleagues in the House, who were licking their wounds and plotting their comeback, but rather by the master politician in the White House - William Jefferson Clinton.

While a number of remarkable successes were achieved by the Republicans in the six years during which they controlled the Congress and Clinton reigned supreme at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue - welfare reform and a balanced budget, most notably - many more initiatives foundered as a result of the inability of the two parties to work constructively together.

Will History Repeat Itself Now that the Democrats Are the House Majority?

Unfortunately, at least for the coming two years that will be the 110th Congress, history is likely to repeat itself. Unlike the Republicans who newly came to power twelve years ago, the incoming Democratic majority counts among its number dozens of Members who have already served in the majority; they have not only tasted power, they have wielded it. They have also chafed under the bit of a strong-willed Republican majority. They will do everything in their power to ensure they do not again face the ignominy of losing power.

Of course, talk of bipartisanship will echo throughout the halls of Congress for many months. There will likely result some legislation reflecting, on the surface, a bipartisan approach to governing; but it will be more the result of a big-government Republican president working with a big-government Democrat Congress on matters on which they agree, than anything reflecting a true bipartisan relationship between House Republicans and Democrats.

The mistrust and ill-will that have been twelve long years in the making will be buttressed by the desire to both repeat the glory of a four-decade-long hold on power, and to ensure a member of their own party is in the White House in 2008. The forces are likely to be far too strong to be resisted by the few members of both parties who do sincerely - and wisely -- want to see the birth of a workable bipartisan approach to governance.

Bob Barr served in the U.S. House of Representatives from January 1995 to January 2003. He was a senior member of the Judiciary Committee. He now practices law, writes extensively, works with the American Conservative Union, and consults on privacy matters with the ACLU.

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