Second of a two-part report
Alex Wong/Getty Images
House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks to the media flanked by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) (left) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA) after a meeting with Obama at the White House on Jan. 6 about the health care reform bill.
House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks to the media flanked by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) (left) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA) after a meeting with Obama at the White House on Jan. 6 about the health care reform bill. Alex Wong/Getty Images
A year ago as a new president took office, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi proclaimed that the United States must be governed from the middle.
"You have to bring people together to reach consensus on solutions that are sustainable and acceptable to the American people," she said. It had been a rough eight years of partisanship and polarization under George W. Bush. Even Republican House leader John Boehner said if the Democrats wanted bipartisanship, he'd work with them.
It didn't work out that way. This past year was - by several measures — the most partisan ever — or at least since Congressional Quarterly began taking stock in 1953. By many CQ measures, the only people who have been brought together are the Democrats — with themselves — and the same for Republicans.
"I'm not surprised by the numbers, given what I've seen over the course of the last year," said political scientist Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. "I've been around Washington for 40 years, immersed in the politics of Congress and the White House. And it's nasty and brutish, as much or more as I've ever seen."
Biggest Party Divide Ever
Every year, Congressional Quarterly measures the percentage of partisan votes taken in the House and Senate. A roll call vote is considered partisan if a majority of Democrats votes against a majority of Republicans. It has hovered around a relatively high 50 percent in the House for the past two decades and stayed there this year, at 51 percent. But in the Senate, it was a whopping 72 percent - the highest percentage of partisan votes ever tallied in that chamber.
House And Senate Party Unity
The graphic shows the percentage of partisan votes taken in the House and Senate. A roll call vote is considered partisan if a majority of Democrats votes against a majority of Republicans.
Moreover, when the House and Senate took partisan votes, Democrats voted in droves with other Democrats, as did Republicans. Congressional Quarterly measures "party support" as the percentage of the time that lawmakers, on average, vote in agreement with a majority of their party on a partisan vote. In 2009 in the Senate, Democrats stuck together for an average party support score of 91 percent — the highest ever. The House Democrats' score was the same — 91 percent — just below the all-time high of 92 percent set in 2007 and 2008. Republican Party support was also high, though not record-breaking: 85 percent in the Senate and 87 percent in the House.
Ornstein said the divide is all the more striking because 2009 started out after an election that was a clear expression of public support for change and a new bipartisanship.
"You have a president who wins in a landslide," Ornstein said. "He enters office on Jan. 20 with a 70 percent approval rating. We have an economy teetering at the edge of the abyss, and he comes up with a major initiative to deal with it. Three weeks into his presidency, not a single Republican in the House votes for the bill."
It was a signal of the year to come: Partisan divides on the budget, environmental legislation, health care. And it was a striking turn from what the majority of Americans seemed to want in the fall of 2008. Ornstein has some idea why.
"If a member of one party collaborates with a member of another, then you might be reducing in some way the wedge issues that will give you a chance to gain seats," Ornstein said, "so you may be jeopardizing something larger."
In other words, Ornstein said, today politicians are constantly campaigning. Unlike much of the 20th century when Democrats were perceived as a sort of permanent majority, now the control of the House and Senate seems always up for grabs. So the parties work hard to emphasize their differences.
Another factor, said Ornstein, is the increasingly conservative Republican party. There is little room for ideological conversation in the GOP. Moderates these days tend to be Democrats.
And perhaps most important to this era of striking political division, is the rise of partisan media. Ornstein says the left and the right each have their own spin doctors...on the air and on the Internet, 24-7. So the two parties can't even agree to a set of facts underlying any particular policy debate.
"Put all of that together and you've got a kind of witches brew that drives our parties apart and enhances partisanship and ideological division," Ornstein said.
Two Distinct Perspectives
Of course, there can be an upside for the party with a strong majority. CQ points out that all the partisanship seemed to pay off for the Democrats — who were victorious on partisan votes 92 percent of the time in the Senate, the highest ever for the majority party — and 94 percent of the time in the House, also the highest percentage ever.
Indeed, the economic stimulus bill was enacted. Both chambers passed the health care bill. The House also passed a major climate change bill and financial regulatory legislation.
"The paradox here is, for all the dysfunction, this Congress is on a course to becoming one of the most productive in history," Ornstein said, "but in the worst, most difficult, most rancorous and partisan fashion."
Put the question of partisanship to members of Congress, and you get two distinct perspectives on the problem.
"I've been here for three decades," said David Dreier (R-CA), a top House Republican. "In this Congress, I will tell you, we've been completely shut out."
In 2009, Republicans had little chance to offer their alternatives to Democrats' legislation. In the House, the majority tightly controlled debate. In the Senate, Democrats held together and blocked filibusters.
Dreier said if Democrats want bipartisanship, they could broaden their agenda and allow more participation from Republicans.
Then again, you can look at this from a different angle.
"The Republicans have, in effect, chosen not to participate for, in my opinion, political objectives rather than policy objectives — because they believe if we fail, they will succeed," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD).
Republicans made the political calculation that they couldn't win back the majority by voting with the Democrats, Hoyer said. So most of them voted no on everything they could in the House. In the Senate, they used every parliamentary trick in the book to slow down or halt debate.
What's the endgame? In a strictly partisan world, you have either great productivity or total gridlock. If one party dominates and holds it together, things move. But if there's divided government, everything screeches to a halt. That could easily happen after the 2010 elections, where Congress changes from the most productive since the New Deal and the Great Society — to no productivity at all.