Escape from the Asylum

Article excerpt

Byline: Jane Harman

Watching the debt crisis, a former congresswoman yearns for a lost bipartisan era.

Three months into my new job as president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, I watch the dysfunction in Congress with dismay. I served there for nine terms and left earlier this year after a huge reelection victory. The chance to lead a truly bipartisan institution that blends policy and scholarship was a challenge I could not turn down.

Many new colleagues and former constituents ask me when and why Congress became so broken. My answer: the breakdown started in the 1980s, when politicians began to value winning elections and building single-party majorities over responsible governance.

Today, representatives would rather blame the other guy for not solving a problem than work with him or her on a bipartisan solution. Working together requires sharing the credit--but that might give the other party an opportunity to win, which is something seemingly unthinkable now.

I remember a different world--standing on the convention floor when John F. Kennedy was nominated for president in 1960, serving as a lawyer in the U.S. Senate during the Nixon impeachment (by a bipartisan vote) and controversial pardon by President Ford. Back then, the executive branch functioned and Congress legislated, no matter how rancorous the controversy.

Though there were threats of a "second revolution" over payment of the debt in Thomas Jefferson's day, that was the exception. The new order of incivility began when Republican operative Lee Atwater began to deploy negative ads----now a campaign staple for both parties--and the hearings to confirm Robert Bork for the Supreme Court descended into acrimonious personal attack.

The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas confrontation was etched in my mind when I first ran for Congress in 1992 and was one of many women elected in what was dubbed the Year of the Woman. We nearly doubled the number of women in the House, and my home state elected two female senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. When I arrived in Congress, the style of campaigning had already changed, though the style of governing hadn't yet.

Then came the earthquake of 1994. The Democrats' majority was gone, most of the women elected with me in 1992 lost their seats, and Newt Gingrich and his "Contract With America" reflected a new, winner-take-all mentality. That was the beginning of the change in governance. There was less contact between the parties, and more partisan votes. It was "my way or the highway."

In 1995 the government shut down--a huge strategic blunder for the Republicans. President Clinton adroitly used it to gain reelection and to build a bipartisan majority to balance the budget in 1997. But whatever rapport had been built was blown up again with the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the resulting impeachment proceedings. The votes were substantially partisan, the congressional circus sucked all the oxygen out of everything else, and government ground to a halt. No-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners politics had become the norm--and, eventually, an art form.

That's what has played out in the debt-ceiling crisis. …