Thirty years ago, when I first served in Congress, there were times when Democrats and Republicans came together to pass meaningful legislation. At times, our work would become landmark legislation that would move the country in a better direction. My Congressional friends were equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. We enjoyed our work while seeing the shiny city on the hill instead of darkness. We need to return to those ‘good ole days.’
The Democrat House Leadership, Senate Minority Leader, and President Biden average age is 80 with their average years of service being around 35. Experience is clearly not the issue. With age there are other concerns – crankiness, stubborn, punitive, etc. come quickly to mind — but that would only be characteristics I remember from some elderly members of my family.
For the most part, we did not have the type of gridlock we see today. We passed bills via Regular Order; bills were passed in a bipartisan manner; and we had earmarks which helped leadership get passage of bills via real compromise. Now the power in Congress falls in the hands of the powerful – leadership. This is unfortunate. Maybe that is why the approval rating for Congress is at an all-time low of 15%. Plus, it cannot be much fun having the leadership tell you what you must do all the time or else.
Since I left Congress, I see two major errors that have caused America to become polarized, issues besides the clever manipulation/ gerrymandering of Congressional districts built to ensure the re-election of members unless taken out in a primary – which results in even more partisan candidates.
The first error may have been a passing remark, but it tore the door open for the few Blacks interested in embracing the Republican Party. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s infamous remarks about making Barack Obama a one-term president just as he was starting his presidency was a major deterrent. The result was 1.7 million more Blacks voted in 2012 than in the historic election of 2008, and Obama received 95% – 97% of the Black vote, becoming the first modern day president to lose the white vote in a landslide and yet become president for a second term.
The second had to do with Obama as well. The passage of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) without any votes from the Republican Party in the House or Senate resulted in another huge tear. It was the first time in America’s history that a major piece of domestic legislation was passed by Congress without any support from the other political party. This passed, but it was trouble for everyone. This caused the Democrats to lose control of Congress and led to the birth of the Tea Party. The Republican Party wasted countless days and months seeking to repeal it without having a credible replacement. It also led to the divide in which President Obama won the Black vote nearly unanimously while losing the white vote by 21 points.
And now we are also on unfamiliar turf. We just had 74 million people vote for an individual (Mr. Trump), the most votes for an incumbent president, and the Democrats are trying to hold a trial in the Senate to remove him from an office he no longer holds. It is like setting a fire on a sinking Titanic. Why?
There should be a focus on unity in passing meaningful legislation. And we get unity when both sides feel that they have been heard and both sides feel that they have something to gain. Back down memory lane, this was done back when our current leaders were first arriving in Washington, D.C. nearly 35 years ago.
Gary A. Franks served three-terms as U.S. representative for Connecticut’s 5th District. he was the first Black Republican elected to the House in nearly 60 years and New England’s first Black member of the House.