Government Gridlock Then and Now: Are We More Divided Than in the Past?

Polls regularly find that Americans are unhappy with what's being done (or not done) in Washington. Jeffrey Brown sits down with Beverly Gage of Yale University, former Senate historian Richard Baker and Richard Norton Smith of George Mason University to get some historical perspective on shifts in America's political parties.


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JEFFREY BROWN: And now: the problem of governing in America today.

These days, it's unusual for a pollster to find anyone who's happy with Washington, and politicians themselves regularly air their frustrations. We begin our series of conversations examining this phenomenon with some historical perspective.

Beverly Gage of Yale University, former Senate historian Richard Baker, co-author of the new book "The American Senate," and Richard Norton Smith of George Mason University, welcome, all three.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Thank you.  

JEFFREY BROWN: Beverly, start us off here. In your historian's hat, what do you see going on in Washington today? How would you describe it?

BEVERLY GAGE, Yale University: Well, I think some of what's going on in Washington at the moment is stuff we have seen before in the past.

We tend to romanticize past periods as being cooperative, beautiful periods of compromise.

JEFFREY BROWN: Everybody worked back then, right?

BEVERLY GAGE: We look back on the laws that were passed and think they were the right laws for the right moment, and, in fact, it's always been very, very messy.

That said, I do think that we are seeing a particular level of dysfunction that is different from what they have seen before and in many ways is a little bit more extreme.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will pick that up.

But, first, Richard Baker, in your book, you looked at this one institution where you sat for many, many years, right, the Senate. Do you see a clear evolution, devolution? What have you seen happen?

RICHARD BAKER, author: All of it, everything.

JEFFREY BROWN: All of it?

RICHARD BAKER: You pick out where you want it.

There have been times of great heartburn, hurt feelings, and then times when they thought they were really going to pull themselves out of the hole and pass some reform legislation and move on into the future.

One of the most recent times was in the mid-1970s. The Senate, maybe coming out of the Nixon era, passed some fairly significant legislation, war powers legislation, budget legislation, and also reorganized their committees so that every member of a committee could hire his or her own staff member.

Well, what did that do to the committees? That immediately fragmented the committees, which used to be these sources of great power in the Senate. Now we're in an era where the power rests with the floor leaders, and not the committee chairmen. So, it's a different time.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Richard, we have talked many times about the evolution of the presidency vis-a-vis Congress, right? So, where do you see us now?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, you know, it's funny.

Maybe the biggest single -- I would argue maybe the biggest single difference between 40 or 50 years ago, if you think of the '60s or the '70s, when the presidency was in some ways paramount, no one would confuse that with an era of good feelings. It was a tumultuous time in this country.

And yet it was also a time of extraordinary legislative and governmental productivity. What's different? One thing is the nature of the party themselves. In the 1960s, the Republican Party was a broadly conservative party. The Democrats were broadly liberal. But each party was a coalition.

So there were Javits Republicans. And there were Richard Russell Democrats. What that meant was that, if you were a newcomer to the Senate -- I remember hearing at various times Ted Kennedy and Bob Dole say to me, the advice they were given when they first arrived here, Bob Dole said, go spend some time with Senator Eastland from Mississippi, and Ted Kennedy said Dick Russell.

The fact is, you learned within your own party caucus how to deal with people with whom you fundamentally disagreed, and that in turn was great preparation for the larger Senate, and indeed the larger body politic.

That's gone. We now have a rigidly conservative and rigidly liberal party.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about -- Beverly, you pick up there because you look a lot at political engagement and civic action, right?

How has that changed, and how does that fit into the kind of strife that we're talking about here in Washington?

BEVERLY GAGE: Well, I think both of my friends here at the table, as they would say, in the Senate, my friends here...

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Distinguished.

JEFFREY BROWN: Before not accomplishing anything.

(LAUGHTER)

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Right.

BEVERLY GAGE: My distinguished friends and colleagues, I think they're absolutely right that if we want to make sense of what's happening now, the moment to look back to, when a lot of these things began to change, is the '60s and '70s.

And that was a moment when many people on the right and on the left looked at what they would have described as the Washington establishment and said, this isn't responsive enough to the people. And they thought there were a number of ways you could go about dealing with that.

One is by having parties that were more ideologically consistent within themselves. That was going to give the people a real choice. Another one was having the primary system and having primaries that actually mattered coming out of the crises of the 1968 Democratic Convention in particular.

So, a lot of these things, which were initiated as real democratic reforms and were things that people on the left and the right agreed upon throughout the 1970s, I think now have led to a very, very combative situation and one that nobody ever intended.

JEFFREY BROWN: And part of that, especially -- I was thinking as you were talking about in the Reagan era of moving towards calling for smaller government.

We have more -- we have people in government, I don't want to say disdaining government, but who are calling for less government all the time.

RICHARD BAKER: The irony of it -- the irony of it all, here they come to an institution called Congress, which basically means coming together.

And you hear people saying, well, if I can't get my own -- anybody to agree with my immigration legislation, I'm going to take it off and do it on my own. Well, where are you going to do it on your own? It's the sense of, we're going to talk past each other.

You mentioned the party caucuses earlier, and the fact that they were quite heterogeneous. The fights would take place behind closed doors. And then they would come out behind those closed doors with a uniform position.

Now there are more homogeneous party caucuses, because the Democrats from the South became Republicans. And so we have a much less diverse Democratic Party. And, of course, then you add the media picking up on -- and all that, I mean, to get ahead of the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Well, no, but we haven't -- the media atmosphere, of course, weighs into all this.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes.

The fact of the matter is, 40 or 50 years ago, whether or not it was a golden era, there was a mainstream media. And they were gatekeepers.

RICHARD BAKER: Right.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Everyone knew what the fringe was.

Those walls have come down. The Internet has removed those walls. Cable TV, cable news and talk radio thrives on the fringe. The way you get noticed in this town overnight is to say something outrageous.

RICHARD BAKER: Right.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: That has had, I think, an enormous impact.

The 24/7 news cycle, we have to feed the beast every day.

RICHARD BAKER: Right.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: All of that, I think, is affecting this.

I think the -- but to get -- I mean, to get back to the notion of liberals and conservatives, there's a -- let's be honest. There's also a real libertarian movement in this country, which is not limited to the Tea Party.

If you're on the left, you have lots of reasons to suspect government. You didn't like Iraq. You didn't think Katrina was responded to very well. You don't like the NSA revelations. If you're on the right, distrust of big government has always been an article of faith. But it's not just cynicism and it's not just media exploitation. There is a genuine reaction against in part philosophically, but also what is perceived as the incompetence of government.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the idea or ideal of a public good that has run through our history?

BEVERLY GAGE: The founders of course spent much of their time contemplating this idea of a public good, trying to set up a situation in which partisan impulses, internal impulses, regional impulses, state impulses, in which all of these would be tamped down enough that, in fact, the government would function and, in fact, we would produce legislators who would act in a broad public good.

This was the essential of the small-R Republican idea originally. And, of course, that's worked better and less well over the years since. I think what we have really lost now is a conversation about it. Right? I mean, it's sort of been taken for granted that this doesn't exist anymore, that there is nothing else beyond partisan warfare in Washington. And we used to have more gestures toward the public good.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, you get a very brief last word here on that.

RICHARD BAKER: I just want to introduce campaign finance.

(LAUGHTER)

RICHARD BAKER: Back in those earlier days, all you had to do to be elected to the Senate was to convince some of your state legislators to vote for you, and that was it.

Now, all of a sudden, we have, in the case of Nevada, with Harry Reid's last election, it cost his campaign $69 per vote in terms of expenditures, something that would have been unimaginable even 20 years earlier.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Well, you know what? We have put a lot on the table for this conversation series.

Beverly Gage, Richard Norton Smith, Richard Baker, thank you, all three. And we will continue this series in days ahead.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Great. Thank you.

RICHARD BAKER: Thank you.