By ALAN J. ORTBALS
The House Oversight Committee’s partisan grilling of FBI agent Peter Strzok on July 12 painted a powerful picture of a divided and dysfunctional Congress.
It reminded me of an incident that occurred in 1856 in the lead up to the Civil War in which Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina used his cane to beat Congressman Charles Sumner of Massachusetts senseless on the House floor. This assault was in response to an anti-slavery speech Sumner had made.
Watching that debacle of a House committee meeting I would not have been surprised if the verbal attacks had led to physical violence. We’re certainly much closer to that end of the spectrum than we are to the days when Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neal would commiserate with Republican President Ronald Reagan over a glass or two of Irish whiskey.
Major legislation used to be done through a process of compromise and consensus between the parties. For example, the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 that created the interstate highway system, the largest public works program in American history, passed the House by a vote of 388 to 19 and the Senate with only one no vote. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed the House by a vote of 289 to 126 and the Senate, 73-27. And, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 was passed on a voice vote in the House and garnered 97 votes in the Senate. Contrast that with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that was passed into law with no Republican votes at all or the Tax Reform and Tax Cut Act of 2017 that passed with nary a Democrat vote.
There are various opinions on why this has occurred. Some mark the beginning of the partisan divide with the election of Newt Gingrich as House Speaker in 1995. Gingrich had a combative style; saw politics as a zero sum game; and required his caucus members to return to their districts every weekend, which put an end to the kind of bipartisan socializing that used to occur.
Some lay the blame on the extreme gerrymandering that has transpired over the last 10 years. The Republicans’ REDMAP project was extremely successful at locking up congressional districts but it has made many of their members loathe to reach across the aisle in fear of being challenged on the right for not being conservative enough. It also confined many Democrats to lopsided districts so they are less likely to bend as well.
But I think there’s another force at work that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves — the media.
News media has undergone an extraordinary transformation over the last 30 years. In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission adopted the Fairness Doctrine. It required holders of broadcast licenses — both radio and television — to present controversial issues of public interest and to do so in an honest, equitable and balanced way. That was the way radio and TV operated for nearly 40 years. But President Reagan abolished the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 and that opened the door for the media to present biased and one-sided programming. Note, for example, that Rush Limbaugh’s show became nationally syndicated in 1988.
Cable TV added fuel to the fire. Fox News began broadcasting in 1996 and MSNBC followed, both tailoring their content and presentation to a particular audience.
So today people pick their news. In the aftermath of the president’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, I flipped back and forth between Fox and MSNBC and got two very different views of reality. But most people don’t do that. They pick the sources that they agree with and they get their views reinforced and ground in. If you watch MSNBC or listen to Thom Hartmann you get a very different picture than if you watch Fox News or listen to Rush Limbaugh.
Should we be surprised then that Congress is a reflection of us?
That’s why Trump’s base is so lock solid behind him and why Congressional Republicans dare not say anything negative about him. And that’s why, if the Democrats think they are going to impeach Trump and remove him from office, Mueller will have to catch him in the act of shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue.
For now, the days of bipartisan cooperation and compromise appear to be over. Is it too late to bring back the Fairness Doctrine?
Alan J. Ortbals is president and publisher of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] or (618) 659-1977.
By ALAN J. ORTBALS