Three months into my new job as president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, I watch the dysfunction in Congress with dismay. I served there for nine terms and left earlier this year after a huge reelection victory. The chance to lead a truly bipartisan institution that blends policy and scholarship was a challenge I could not turn down.
Many new colleagues and former constituents ask me when and why Congress became so broken. My answer: the breakdown started in the 1980s, when politicians began to value winning elections and building single-party majorities over responsible governance.
Today, representatives would rather blame the other guy for not solving a problem than work with him or her on a bipartisan solution. Working together requires sharing the credit—but that might give the other party an opportunity to win, which is something seemingly unthinkable now.
I remember a different world—standing on the convention floor when John F. Kennedy was nominated for president in 1960, serving as a lawyer in the U.S. Senate during the Nixon impeachment (by a bipartisan vote) and controversial pardon by President Ford. Back then, the executive branch functioned and Congress legislated, no matter how rancorous the controversy.
Though there were threats of a “second revolution” over payment of the debt in Thomas Jefferson’s day, that was the exception. The new order of incivility began when Republican operative Lee Atwater began to deploy negative ads—now a campaign staple for both parties—and the hearings to confirm Robert Bork for the Supreme Court descended into acrimonious personal attack.
The Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas confrontation was etched in my mind when I first ran for Congress in 1992 and was one of many women elected in what was dubbed the Year of the Woman. We nearly doubled the number of women in the House, and my home state elected two female senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. When I arrived in Congress, the style of campaigning had already changed, though the style of governing hadn’t yet.
Then came the earthquake of 1994. The Democrats’ majority was gone, most of the women elected with me in 1992 lost their seats, and Newt Gingrich and his “Contract With America” reflected a new, winner-take-all mentality. That was the beginning of the change in governance. There was less contact between the parties, and more partisan votes. It was “my way or the highway.”
In 1995 the government shut down—a huge strategic blunder for the Republicans. President Clinton adroitly used it to gain reelection and to build a bipartisan majority to balance the budget in 1997. But whatever rapport had been built was blown up again with the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the resulting impeachment proceedings. The votes were substantially partisan, the congressional circus sucked all the oxygen out of everything else, and government ground to a halt. No-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners politics had become the norm—and, eventually, an art form.
That’s what has played out in the debt-ceiling crisis. Giving President Obama credit for working out a compromise could help him get reelected—and that is simply unacceptable to some Republicans, who would rather take him down even if our country’s economy and standing in the world are collateral damage. Governing effectively and solving problems used to be rewarded. Now what’s rewarded is defeating the other party. And sadly, no one seems to find political value in bipartisanship.
How I miss Ted Kennedy, Bob Dole, Phil Hart, Howard Baker, Tom Foley, and Bob Michel. There are many good people in both parties who are frustrated; they have a lot to contribute, and many would like to work together. I know: I was one of them. I have watched with bafflement as the 2007 lightbulb-efficiency law that I coauthored with a senior Republican has become a Tea Party punching bag. (Even that coauthor now opposes it!) What a colossal waste of talent—and a terrible message to kids like mine who want nothing do with running for elected office.
The Obama campaign’s call for a new tone in Washington had enormous resonance in this country, but little has happened. The protracted and difficult health-care fight culminated in a totally partisan vote. There have been very few bipartisan votes on anything significant.
What’s in the country’s interest isn’t the first order of business. The first order of business is, how do I get reelected?
When I was an idealistic kid, John F. Kennedy was a completely new kind of politician. Today, the times cry out for a completely new kind of politics—and for more mayors like Cory Booker, Michael Bloomberg, and Antonio Villaraigosa who put results before partisanship.
How can we fix it? First, we need sustained presidential leadership. President Obama could use his bully pulpit to build personal relationships with the frustrated bipartisan core in Congress.
Second, congressional districts must become more competitive. I always had tough elections. If you’re in a competitive race, you have to listen to different voices, understand the value of compromise, and work with the other party.
Third, the middle must become militant. Politicians should pay a price for being shrilly partisan. The rewards have to go to the people who compromise and make good policy. Right now the system punishes those in the center. The incentives and disincentives have to switch back to what they used to be, when extreme partisans were marginalized.
Our near-death brush with default has hurt America’s standing in the world and made our economy more vulnerable. We’re playing a hyperpartisan game with real ammunition, and it’s too dangerous. Whether it’s done through a third party or reforming the two we already have, we need candidates and leaders who prize the virtues of bipartisanship and solving problems over blame-game politics.
Former congresswoman Harman is now president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Her late husband, Sidney, bought NEWSWEEK last year and merged it with THE DAILY BEAST. Jane Harman serves on the board of the combined company.