House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi recently pledged that if her party regained control of the chamber, it would foster “civility in public debate.”
A fine new book casts doubt on this claim. Juliet Eilperin, a Washington Post reporter, looks at the breakdown of Capitol comity in Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the House of Representatives. “It is hard to exaggerate how much House Republicans and Democrats dislike each other these days,” she writes. Drawing on extensive interviews and a deep knowledge of recent congressional history, she shows how this ill will hinders the institution’s business.
Eilperin places much of the blame on Republicans. When they won the House in 1994, they said that they would treat the minority party more fairly than the Democrats had treated them. Democrats, she says, remember that promise as a cruel joke. They argue that Republicans have increasingly curbed their role in lawmaking.
She is remarkably evenhanded, however, showing how Democrats themselves pioneered the tactics that they now resent. (The book has taken some hits in the left-wing blogosphere for acknowledging that Republicans may not be the sole focus of evil in the world.) And she tells stories that reveal how each side has lost the other’s trust and respect.
Pelosi figures in one such story. In 2004, the drug industry’s trade group began courting Representative Billy Tauzin (R., Louisiana) to become its president. As a committee chair, Tauzin had worked on the prescription-drug bill. Some Democrats suggested that the drug industry had dangled the job in exchange for goodies in the bill. Tauzin, a former Democrat, sought out Pelosi and offered to show her documents proving that he had not talked about the job before the bill had passed. According to Tauzin, Pelosi said that she believed him. But that afternoon, she made a speech implying that he had indeed made a dirty deal.
“I could never trust Nancy Pelosi again in my life,” he told Eilperin. “It tears down the capacity of an institution to work.” (Her aides dispute the account, but she refused to talk to Eilperin for the book.)
How did things get this far? For one thing, the Democrats have become more liberal and the Republicans more conservative. Eilperin says that redistricting has hastened this trend by creating deep blue and deep red districts that favor ideological extremes.
But the real problem isn’t tough ideological debate, which would actually benefit the country. Often there is little debate at all. Even when rules do allow for some discussion, the result is not an exchange of views but a duel of soundbites. As Eilperin explains, Republicans have passed up chances to educate the public and sway moderate Democrats.
On both sides, good policy often yields to the pursuit of power. Readers of NRO can easily list many times (e.g., the transportation bill) that Republicans have ditched conservative principle for constituent pandering. As for the other party, Eilperin quotes a top Democratic aide: “In those three elections — 1996, 1998, and 2000, when we believed we had a significant chance to win — we thought we were fighting the war to end all wars and it was not in our interest to get things done. It contributed to the institution’s problems.”
The same is true of 2006. And if Pelosi’s troops win control in November, their margin will probably be thin. Both parties will immediately start sharpening the blades for 2008. The Democrats will use their power to slice up Republicans, who in turn will grab every opportunity to harass the majority.
Can anything break the cycle? Eilperin suggests that redistricting reform might help, though she understands the political barriers athwart this path. “There is no institutional support for restoring comity and respect and order,” she quotes Tauzin. “It’s going to take some cataclysmic voter reaction.”
Fight Club Politics is a skillfully concise treatment of House politics since the early 1990s. A longer book might have gone into more detail on the events and personalities of previous decades. Tip O’Neill, who gets a memorable but brief mention in this book, deserves more attention for his role in raising the partisan temperature. In 1984, he said of President Reagan: “The evil is in the White House at the present time. And that evil is a man who has no care and no concern for the working class of America and the future generations of America, and who likes to ride a horse. He’s cold. He’s mean. He’s got ice water for blood.”
The chamber’s partisan warfare did not start with Newt Gingrich. It will not end with Denny Hastert.
—John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College.
Rowman & Littlefield, 176 pp., $19.95