Commentary: Politics as it was

Government in the United States is an organized argument. The genius of our Constitution is that it provides a framework in which to carry on the argument. However, in order for our government to function there must be a degree of civility.

The authors of the Federalist Papers knew that farm states would clash with shipping interests and inland states would clash with coastal areas. Through checks and balances the interests of the individual states, clashing with the interests of the others, would produce a resolution that all states could accept at least temporarily.

Times change and the Constitution changes with the times but quite slowly. Our system of government is designed to be slow and stable. Sometimes our system is too slow but that is the price we pay for stability. If our Constitution did not change, women would not be allowed to vote, senators would be elected by state legislatures and blacks would still be enslaved.

Constitutional government assumes that at the end of the day we are countrymen despite our differences.

In the mid-1980s, there was a great debate on putting airbags in American automobiles. Today, airbags are standard equipment in cars but this safety device came after substantial political battles.

Republican Sen. John C. Danforth was a lonely voice in the cause of airbags. In 1982, New Jersey elected Frank R. Lautenberg, a Democrat.

Lautenberg joined Danforth in an uphill fight for airbags. I was Sen. Lautenberg’s legislative assistant with responsibility for highway safety. During a debate on the floor of the Senate, Sen. Danforth declared that on this issue the liberal Democrat from New Jersey was “my strong right arm.”

Senators Lautenberg and Danforth agreed on a few, but only a few, issues. One day they would be fighting together against drunk driving; the next day they would be on opposite sides of a debate on the federal budget. That is how our system works. A friend one day can be an adversary the next.

There are rules of the road. The first rule is: disagree without being disagreeable. Respect your adversary with the assumption that at the end of the day you both love your country and want the best for its citizens. Now we disagree and are disagreeable.

Where did we go off the rails? A deep distrust of government set in after Vietnam and Watergate. Bitter partisanship came to full flower with Newt Gingrich. It was no longer enough to disagree with your opponent, now you had to label liberals as traitors and corrupt. Politics was no longer about demographics but ideology. Republicans who crossed party lines were labelled RINOs, Republicans in name only.

Could a Republican member of Congress survive today if he referred to a Democrat as “my strong right arm?”

I worked for many years with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). MADD could not afford to be a partisan group. In fact, people would marvel that MADD’s support was as likely to come from Joe Biden as Strom Thurmond.

MADD’s cause of setting the definition of intoxication at .08 blood alcohol content (.08 BAC) was sponsored by Sen. Lautenberg in the Senate and Rep. Nita Lowey, D-New York, in the House. After Gingrich became House Speaker in 1996, MADD sought support for .08 BAC from Republicans who had previously supported the bill but we were told that they would not support a bill sponsored by a Democrat. This experience was new to MADD. It never mattered what party you were from. Drunk drivers did not ask for your party registration. Drunk driving is an equal opportunity killer.

The .08 BAC effort enjoyed broad support in the Senate garnering 65 votes but it was not brought to a vote in the House because of inaction by the Rules Committee under control of Speaker Gingrich. Subsequently, .08 BAC became the law of the land through the efforts of Sen. Lautenberg and former U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Virginia, who chaired the Appropriations Subcommittees on Transportation in the Senate and House.

The British journalist Alistair Cooke did a documentary called “America.” He concluded by citing what made our country work. He said, “Compromise, compromise, compromise.” Compromise is a dirty word to many of our current members of Congress and that is why our government is not working.

Tom Howarth is chairman of the Warren County Democratic Committee.

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