Political parties are useful - if you can make them work

Bitterness in Congress has reached a level where it is interfering with the legislative process. Congress cannot do what it is supposed to do.

The low point came a couple of weeks ago when a simple disagreement in the House Ways and Means Committee grew into a demand by Chairman Bill Thomas (R) of California that Capitol Police remove Democratic members from the committee library. They didn't, but the argument boiled over to consume a full afternoon in the House of Representatives. The fuss came over Democratic demands to be allowed longer than overnight for examining a 200-page bill to overhaul the nation's pension system. The House rejected a Democratic protest of the Republican behavior by a party-line vote, 170 to 143. A week later, after a private talk in the office of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois, Mr. Thomas apologized in a tearful speech on the House floor.

Only a couple of days before that episode, the Senate Democrats had unsuccessfully tried to use the defense appropriations bill as a vehicle for investigating the run-up to war in Iraq. The White House opposed this, and therefore so did the Senate.

A generation ago, Vietnam was the most divisive issue since the Civil War, but it was not partisan; it divided between the White House and the Senate, each of which was controlled by Democrats. They would not have needed an amendment to the defense appropriations bill to investigate the war, nor would the recent Ways and Means Committee incident have occurred.

In those days, even with strong feelings over Vietnam, there was comity. People could disagree without disliking one another. Some opponents were genuine friends. Secretary of State Bill Rogers and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bill Fulbright would quarrel about the best way to get out of Vietnam during the week, and then play golf together on the weekends. On a recent Washington visit, former president and House minority leader Gerald Ford recalled his good friendship with former majority leader T. Hale Boggs (D) of Louisiana.

Beyond partisanship, a problem currently hampering Congress is the growth of ideological politics. Social and cultural issues are more important today. During the Nixon administration, a Democratic Senate rejected two successive nominations to the Supreme Court without generating the bitterness that has caused the present Senate stalemate in all judicial confirmations.

This paralysis and bitterness in politics is affecting states and even cities. A New York City councilman was recently killed by a political opponent. Texas is engaged in such a vitriolic argument over redrawing the boundaries of congressional districts that Democratic lawmakers fled the state twice to escape compulsory attendance in the legislature. California is in a bizarre quarrel to recall its governor. Florida could not agree how to count its votes for president in 2000.

There has always been a conflict in the United States between parties, politicians, and principles. This was carried to the point of physical violence in 1856, when Rep. Preston Brooks (D) of South Carolina crossed the Senate floor to assault Sen. Charles Sumner (D) of Massachusetts, severely injuring him. In 1964, Sen. Strom Thurmond (D), also of South Carolina, and Sen. Ralph Yarborough (D) of Texas scuffled with less serious results in a Senate office building corridor.

James Madison, frequently called the father of the Constitution, joined Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in writing the Federalist Papers. These were first published anonymously in 1787-1788 in explanation of, and argument for, ratification of the Constitution.

In No. 37, Madison writes with some wonder of the various interests that were successfully reconciled - among others, those of large and small states; free and slave states; considerations of government powers and individual rights; federal powers and states rights; division of powers among the three branches of the federal government. In the circumstances, Madison marveled that the Constitutional Convention ever reached agreement at all, much less a unanimous one. This could only have happened, he thought, through "a deep conviction of the necessity of sacrificing private opinions and partial interests to the public good."

Madison also attributed it to the convention's "exemption from the pestilential influence of party animosities - the disease most incident to deliberative bodies, and most apt to contaminate their proceedings." As the country has grown, it has found parties useful. What it needs to do now is find a way to make them work.

The best solution to a problem, if it has one, is likely to be one that nobody likes but everybody can live with.

Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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