One night last summer, Republicans walked out of the House chamber. They accused the majority Democrats of cheating on a floor vote. The amendment in question would have kept taxpayer funds from going to illegal aliens.
This past Thursday, the Republicans again walked out. They were angry that the Democrats were focusing on contempt citations against Josh Bolten and Harriet Miers instead of working on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
This latest incident will renew complaints that the House is in decline. A few weeks ago, Newsweek’s Evan Thomas wrote: “It’s hard to imagine the leaders of the two parties sitting down at the end of the day to share a drink and a joke, as President Reagan was able to do with Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill in the 1980s.”
There is some truth to such grumbling. Partisan polarization has increased. But it’s a bad mistake to think that the 1980s were a golden age of civility.
For one thing, the O’Neill-Reagan “friendship” was a myth. Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan recounts in her memoir that she once asked Chief of Staff Don Regan if Reagan liked O’Neill. “He tried to! He wanted to like him, he thought it was good for the government if they got along and could work together. Sometimes they’d have a meeting and Tip would be there and they’re laughing and getting along and it’s very warm. And then,’ Regan made a fist and punched it into his palm, ‘Tip would leave, go up to the Hill and turn on him just like a snake! It was treachery!’”
Was Don Regan exaggerating? Here is what O’Neill said to reporters during the 1984 Democratic convention: “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.”
Partisan venom did not come just from O’Neill. In 1985, Republicans Dan Lungren and Bob Walker confronted Majority Leader Jim Wright over a procedural matter. As Lungren recounted on the floor, Wright responded: “I am smiling because I am trying to hold inside how I feel. I want to come down off here and punch you and Mr. Walker in the mouth.” Lungren then told how Wright came down, “grabbed me by the arm and repeated the suggestion, at which time I told him to get his hands off my arm.” Wright later apologized. Good thing for him: Lungren was proficient in martial arts.
Then as now, Republicans protested what they saw as Democratic abuses of power. A key fight occurred over a disputed House election in Indiana. Rolling over GOP objections, the Democrats voted to seat one of their own. And the Republicans walked out.
In 1987, Jim Wright — now the House speaker — lost a key procedural vote. Though he wanted to change the measure and revote right away, the House would normally have to wait a day. To get around this requirement, he employed an unusual tactic. He had the House adjourn and instantly reconvene for a new “legislative day.” On the climactic roll call, however, he was still one vote short when he announced that all voting time had expired. Republicans thought that they had stopped him. But then, a Wright aide pulled a lawmaker into the chamber to switch his vote. The bill passed.
In the year and a half after this incident, Republicans struck back at Wright by challenging his ethics, and he eventually had to quit. So did Majority Whip Tony Coelho (D., Calif).
During the 1990s, control of the House changed hands. Some observers accused the new majority of filling the Capitol with partisan bile. Even today, they contend that Democratic high-handedness is a reaction to the years of Republican rule.
But the roots of rancor run deeper than that. The battle was already under way some 25 years ago.
— John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College.