On Monday, October 27, Former RNC Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf came to Harvard Law School to discuss bipartisanship in Congress over the course of the past three decades: “Back in the 80s, a very partisan time, things got done. Washington for the last eight or nine years? Nothing get’s done…and there are some interesting reasons why.”
Fahrenkopf discussed a variety of well-known factors that led to the decline of bipartisanship. Gerrymandering “did away with the middle,” as races no longer turned on inter-party competition, but intra-party competition. Candidates elected on extreme views were determined to keep their word–and their voters. Strong House leadership responded to intra-party competition by strengthening party alliances and preventing bipartisan initiatives. Senate leadership responded by forcing party line votes on majority-led initiatives through the mechanism of “filling the amendment tree.” The termination of earmarks prevented members from greasing the wheels of legislation. And lack of campaign finance restrictions forced members to focus on popular positions and fundraising rather than bipartisan positions and policy.
Fahrenkopf laid a fair amount of blame on Obama’s approach to the presidency. “Not to be too partisan,” Fahrenkopf cited what Bill Clinton told him regarding bipartisanship: “Even though I was impeached, I was still able to reach across party lines.” By contrast, Fahrenkopf asserted that Obama conducts almost “zero” outreach to members of either party, “sort of like he’s above it.” Fahrenkopf asserted that in refusing to develop relationships with individual congressmen, Obama has rejected an important role in joining the different sides of the aisle.
Beyond these factors, Fahrenkopf also focused on the “lack of trust” among members. In contrast to his experiences working with the chairman of the DNC in the 80s, the Hill lacks the trust necessary to form a foundation for mutual cooperation and bipartisanship. Fahrenkopf attributes this to the factors listed above as well as the nature of modern Congress, in which all members leave DC for the weekend and focus exclusively on partisan goals for the days they are in the city. Fahrenkopf added to this point that “it’s not only politics that has changed, but our society has changed.” He bemoaned not only the devolution of politics, but of societal connections more broadly.
The talk was well attended by HLS students and JOL members. Fahrenkopf opened up the floor for questions, and most of the students focused on “how we got here.” However, there seems to be a more basic normative question to ask: Is this “new Congress” such a bad thing? Aren’t there at least some benefits to the new, streamlined Congress? A Congress hyper-responsive to our tweets and Facebook posts, and more focused on the voters at home than the friends down the hall? Although the current Congressional approval ratings give a resounding “no,” we have to think that if Congress is really as bad as we all say it is, things would rapidly change.
Note: while quotations were recorded during Fahrenkopf’s presentation, his actual statements may have varied slightly.