“Bipartisan” is a word that’s getting a lot of play in Washington these days, especially on Capitol Hill, where Congress recently approved the economic stimulus bill.
Last week the Association of Government Accountants played host to Rep. Jim Moran (D.-Va.) and Tom Davis, the former Republican Congressman from Virginia, now with the consulting firm Deloitte, who offered some surprisingly frank assessments and post-mortem analysis of the Hill battle to gain approval of the mammoth stimulus bill.
It all began with a simple question from Deloitte’s Neil Goldstein, who moderated the discussion: “Where did all this bipartisanship that we were going to enjoy, where did it go?”
After some nervous laughter, Davis, the 14-year Republican Representative, who did not run for re-election last year and is now Director of Federal Government Relations at Deloitte, took a first stab at the question:
What you had in the House was an exit of more moderate members. The districts that tend to fall in bad years tend to be districts represented by centrists in both parties, because these are where the battle lines are drawn. The Republican caucus has shifted. Basically, it has become more conservative and shrunk over time. Actually, I like to say that it’s shrunk from a political party, which is a coalition, into a club where everybody agrees with each other.
Commenting on the Democrats increasing their majority in the House and gaining seats in the Senate, Davis noted:
When a party is selected to be the majority, the first thing they do is the leaders sit around in an ornate room and the first question they ask is: “How do we keep the majority?” The group that gets unseated sits around in a less ornate room and they ask themselves: “How do we get back in the majority?” They ask: “Do we gain by cooperating, or do we gain by going alone?” Ultimately this becomes about gamesmanship and political power.
A major hurdle towards passage of the stimulus bill was overcome when three Republican Senate moderates — Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine — fended off a potential filibuster and hammered out a compromise with Senate Democrats that formed the nucleus of the stimulus measure that eventually passed in both houses of Congress. And Davis says Republicans owe those lawmakers bouquets instead of brickbats:
I speak as a strong Republican. They did the party a favor. Can you imagine if the Republicans were still filibustering the package and not letting it come to a vote at a time when the economy is spiraling downward? That would have shifted the ownership of the economy and the blame onto the party. Those three, by allowing the Democrats to have their way, now have shifted this back to President Obama and the Democrats in terms of consequences.
Jim Moran, the incumbent 8th District Democrat from Northern Virginia, and a very good friend of Tom Davis’s, offered his own analysis of why things are the way they are, at least in the House. For one thing, he blames the fact that, increasingly, moderates and centrists like Davis are being marginalized and pushed out of both parties.
He (Davis) left, Ray Lahood (the former Illinois Republican Congressman) left. Now, Obama picked him up as Secretary of Transportation. Ray’s a good Republican, but he would not be acceptable to some of the more conservative ideologues in the Republican party today. He succeeded Bob Michel, who was also a terrific Republican in his day, but in the days of Bob Michel both parties got along for the betterment of their constituents. Bob Michel used to work with Tip O’Neill (the former House Speaker), and he worked with the chair of the Appropriations Committee, and he served his constituents in Peoria very well. Democrats knew they were never going to get the people in Peoria to vote Democratic, but he knew that, if he wanted to serve them well, he would vote with the Dems. That happened classically in the days of Silvio Conte, and O’Neill, and John McCormack. That is a tradition. I think things changed in 1994. Newt Gingrich took a different approach. It was a “scorched earth” approach, in terms of trying to define the Republican party as everything that the Democratic party was not, and vice versa.
Moran also told the AGA he’s bothered by the way the vote on the stimulus bill went in the House.
“I don’t think it was good that no Republican voted for the stimulus package in the House,” he told attendees of the AGA National Leadership Conference. “I don’t think it’s good that you have about 40% of the House of Representatives basically praying that the economy isn’t going to recover, that they were right in voting against the stimulus package.”
Moran also noted that most Republican objections to the stimulus bill were based on the complaint that they had little input in the drafting of the measure.
But Moran says that “no one had any input into the Democratic leadership, because it had to be done very quickly. We had a few things that we wanted put in on the Appropriations Committee, and some members of Ways and Means got a few things but, for the most part, it was a leadership package that had to go out quickly, and there wasn’t a lot of input. But when President Obama reached out to the Republican leadership, if they had concrete suggestions, he would have seen that it was included.”
Tom Davis said inclusiveness, what some would call “bipartisanship,” is a double edged sword for both parties:
When I chaired the (House) Government (Reform and Oversight) Committee, I worked with Henry Waxman (D.-Calif)., then ranking minority member, later committee chairman. We did a lot of things together, I think we were a better committee doing it that way. Jim (Moran) and I come out of local government, where, really, partisanship ended on election day. Here, it never stops in Washington, it’s the never-ending story, where one election’s over, and the target list goes up the next day. I was campaign chairman for the Republicans for two cycles. I know how it works.
Davis believes that two-thirds of all congressional districts in the country are “safe seats,” meaning that, for the most part, those districts will stay in one party or another in the long term. Because of that, he says, a member’s real race will be in the primary elections.
“If you’re a Republican,” he said, “you’re constantly looking over your right shoulder, and you understand that, if you begin compromising with Democrats, you’re going to have a problem in the primary, and if you don’t believe me, ask Wayne Gilchrist (a Maryland Republican unseated last fall). ”
Davis concluded that he believes President Obama is “sincere in wanting to govern in a bipartisan way, but there’s only so far he can go before he begins losing votes in his own governing caucus, too.”