A Growing Cancer On Congress: The Curse Of Party-Line Voting
Just as White House Counsel John Dean famously proclaimed the Watergate cover-up of the 1970s a “cancer on the presidency,” there is now a growing cancer on Congress. The rapid and pervasive rise of party-line voting is a cancer that is eating at the effectiveness of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. As a consequence, what was once the world’s most deliberative body, the US Senate, hardly deliberates at all, and what little is accomplished in Washington is done through party-line votes and executive orders, with devastating consequences.
The recent tax reform bill is Exhibit A, with zero Democrats voting for it in either the House or the Senate. One Republican in the Senate and 13 in the House broke ranks to vote against it, largely out of a concern over its predicted increase in the federal debt. With only one party at the table working on the bill, its provisions were developed last minute, with handwritten edits presented on the floor. Deliberation, if it happened at all, was limited to one side of the aisle and a very narrow range of choices were considered in a short time frame.
Unfortunately party-line voting has become the new normal. As recently as the early 1970s, party unity voting was around 60% but today it is closer to 90% in both the House and Senate. If you think about the major legislative accomplishments of recent presidents, beginning with George W. Bush, you can see the problem. Campaigning for the presidency by touting his work across the aisle as governor of Texas, Bush found that more difficult in Washington. In his first year as president, Congress passed his No Child Left Behind education bill with strong bipartisan support, 384-45 in the House and 91-8 in the Senate. But his next major legislation, prescription drugs for seniors, was hotly debated and the vote came largely on party lines, at least in the House, with only 8 Democrats supporting it and 8 Republicans against.
Part of Barack Obama’s “hope and change” message as a candidate included making Washington work in a bipartisan way, but that got little traction. The Affordable Care Act, perhaps the most important piece of domestic legislation in 50 years, was passed on a straight party-line vote of Democrats. Bipartisanship completely fell apart when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Republicans’ “single most important thing” was making sure Obama was a one-term president, and Obama announced that he had “a pen and a phone” and would just take executive action to get things done.
Now we are shocked when Senator John McCain flies back to the Capitol from cancer treatments to announce he would not vote to repeal and replace Obamacare without a bipartisan conversation involving both parties to find the best solution. An opinion piece in the conservative Washington Times called him “a traitor to the conservative cause.” Apparently party discipline is more important than finding the right solution to the complex set of health care issues.
One unfortunate consequence of all this party-line voting and executive action is that policy swings back and forth or is held in the balance. Obamacare is passed on a party-line vote and nearly repealed on one. The same is true for Dodd-Frank. Obama’s executive orders are simply overturned by his successor Donald Trump. Is this any way to run a government?
One underlying problem is that the two major parties are now better sorted than before. Whereas both the Republican and Democratic parties had some liberals, moderates and conservatives in an earlier day, now Republicans are predictably conservative and Democrats are liberal. But another problem is that all politicians seem to care about in Washington is how a vote will best position them and their party for the next election, rather than what will make for a great piece of legislation. Congress has devolved to marketing and winning, not deliberation and great policy.
Only when a few statesmen and the American voters stand up against party-line voting will anything change.
This will be the topic for today. I hope you enjoyed the blog and learned a few new facts, thank you for reading.