The congressional vote to rescind the president’s declaration of a national emergency at the southern border fascinates. It lines up partisanship against principle and will probably indicate how little principles matter. Although many Republicans claim constitutional ideals that should lead them to vote against the declaration, few will.

On March 1, 2019, I posted an essay about the 1977 controversy over the Panama Canal Treaties. Proponent of the treaties thought them desirable because they gave America the right to ensure the canal’s neutrality while removing a flashpoint for much of Latin America, and Panama in particular, by giving Panama control over the canal.  The treaty advocates maintained that the treaties would increase the security of the canal by helping to remove the threat of guerrilla attacks, which were almost impossible to defend against.

While prominent conservatives, including Henry Kissinger and William Buckley, backed the treaties, other conservatives in near-hysterical terms attacked ratification.  The treaties, they argued, were a surrender of American sovereignty, and furthermore, the military leader of Panama was pro-Communist.  Communists would control the canal and Panama, and the subsequent harm to the US would be incalculable. The anti-treaties conservatives made the vote on the Panama Canal a litmus test for a new conservatism. Senators supporting adoption of the treaties drew the ire of a newly mobilized conservative mass. Some Republican Senators, however, did recognize that the treaties were good for this country and voted to ratify. These principled politicians were not rewarded with profile in courage badges. Instead, almost all those Republicans voting yes paid a price imposed on them by the booboosie conservatives. On the other hand, history has shown that those who opposed the treaties were not only wrong but often quite stupid in their opposition. Even so, the opponents of the treaty often benefited from their opposition.

Although the actual controversy over the Panama Canal Treaties may be largely forgotten (which is not surprising since many in Congress show the most superficial knowledge of our history), the political consequences of the treaties battle have been absorbed into the conservative DNA. Don’t vote your principles if that goes against what the right-wing rabble wants. You may lose your office as the conservatives whip up conservative opposition to you.

Even back in 1977, only a few conservatives could bring themselves to vote for the treaties, either because they were not bright enough to understand it was the right choice or they felt more partisan than principled. Since then Congress has become even more partisan and elected Republican conservatives even less principled so the needed Republican votes against the “national emergency” are not likely to be there. (This is not to suggest that all the Democratic votes against the national emergency are principled. There are many reasons for a vote against the president’s declaration: there is no emergency at the southern border; there is an emergency, but a border wall does not meaningfully address it; the president’s declaration contravenes our constitutional separation of powers. And, of course, partisanship.)

The changed nature of Congress was driven home to me by reading Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t by Robert G. Kaiser, published in 2013. The book chronicles the passage of the Dodd-Frank act. In doing so, Kaiser explains how Congress starting in the last third of the twentieth century became increasingly partisan.

Perhaps surprisingly, part of the reason for the partisanship is social. No longer do congresspeople live in Washington. At one time, it was common for Senators and Representatives to move to Washington and raise their families there. That led to socializing across party lines. The demonization of opponents was less likely if the politicians frequently shared bourbon, veal cutlets, or a deck of cards together. But representatives now seldom get to know each other. Instead, conservatives increasingly made “Washington” an epithet. Anyone who spent excessive time there was suspect. Then Congressional rules increased reimbursements for travel to home districts. The Washington work week is now generally three, and at most four, days, and representatives go back “home” nearly every week. With lesser contact across party lines, there was a diminished need for politeness.

The demonization of political opponents also increased as safe seats multiplied. Gerrymandering started in the early 1800s, but it changed in 1982 when California drew House districts across the state to increase Democratic representation. Republicans took the hint and became even more proficient at creating safe seats for their party. Kaiser reports that by 2000, 300 of the 435 House seats were secure, and that number has increased since then. Representatives who do not have to seek votes across party lines or even from the center can indulge their political ideology and demonizing rhetoric without fear of retribution.

The cost of elections also increased and fundraising by politicians is now constant. This not only means less time for legislating, it has also led to an era of permanent campaigning. At one time representatives between elections concentrated on the business of governing. They sought respect from their colleagues because this standing made them more effective legislators. Now, always in campaign mode, our representatives are not as concerned with legislative accomplishments as with media attention, which is often garnered with extreme partisanship. We all, apparently, love a good fight and colorful epithets.

(continued March 25)

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