The 113th Congress was rated one of the least productive congresses in history, and the 114th is not shaping up to do much better. Things have gotten so bad that we consider it an achievement when our elected officials just agree to pay the bills instead of shutting down the government.
But things were not always like this. There have been points in U.S history when our leaders put down their party label and walked across the aisle to get things done. Here are just three examples:
Lincoln and the Gang of Rivals: By the 1860 Presidential election a handful of political parties had disbanded and then coalesced back into the recently formed Republican party. Among the contenders for the Republican nomination were: a New York Senator, an Ohio Governor, and an obscure backwoods lawyer with one term in the House and two failed Senate races under his belt.
Much to the surprise of America the backwoods lawyer, named Abraham Lincoln, would go on to win the nomination and then the presidency. What might have been even more surprising was that when Lincoln took office he appointed his previous rivals (with backgrounds from different parties) and Edwin Stanton (a Democrat) to key-cabinet positions.
When a reporter asked Lincoln why he would bring his former opponents into his inner circle he responded by saying simply "These were the very strongest men. I had no right to deprive the country of their services." Lincoln and his team of rivals would go on to lead the country through one of the most tumultuous times in its existence.
1964 Civil Rights Act: Even 100 years after the end of the Civil War African-Americans were still experiencing widespread discrimination and being denied basic rights. To address this issue the House passed a civil rights bill, that was supported by President Johnson, but faced opposition in the Senate by a large bloc of Southern Democrats determined to defeat the legislation. The debate over this issue would lead to one of the longest filibusters in Senate history.
To overcome the staunch southern opposition to the bill Democratic Majority Leader Mike Mansfield worked with his counterpart, Republican Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, to gain broad bipartisan support. Eventually 27 Republicans joined 44 Democrats to end the debate and successfully passed sweeping civil rights reform.
1983 Social Security Reform: Today touching Social Security is thought of as a political suicide mission but back in 1983 a group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers successfully cut benefits in the program, raised taxes to support it, and lived to fight another day.
In his first term President Reagan, a vocal critic of the New Deal program, tried and failed to make changes to the benefits and retirement age. Facing a program that was rapidly approaching insolvency the Gipper and Speaker O’Neil appointed members to a bipartisan commission to figure out how to extend the lifetime of the policy.
While this was clearly a contentious issue the members of the commission were able to come together and propose legislation that, while neither party was thrilled about it, created meaningful reform that the President was able to sign into law.
These three examples show that compromise between liberals and conservatives is something that has been done, can be done, and if we want to move forward as a country then it needs to be done.
Unfortunately our politics has become such that Congress feels like less of place for serious deliberation and more of a battlefield for tribal warfare. Compromise has become a dirty word and politicians can get skewered by their base just meeting with members from the other party. Everyone has issues that are important to them but unless we start telling our leaders to put people over party then we will not see any progress.