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Hershey Kisses Won’t Sweeten Politics

Ross K. Baker is a professor of political science at Rutgers University

The famously crusty 19th-century President James K. Polk once received a touring troupe of jugglers in the White House. When the jugglers had finished their act, Polk was asked what he thought of the performance. He was heard to respond, “Oh, it was innocent in itself, but I found the time unprofitably spent.”

That sort of comment might well be the reaction of House members when they emerge from a three-day retreat in Hershey, Pa., that kicks off on March 19. Hershey II, as this group therapy session might be called, follows by two years another bipartisan weekend conclave in 1997. Hershey I was an effort to bring together House Democrats and Republicans who had been at each other’s throats through most of the 1990s.

The bad blood really started flowing in 1988 when rising GOP leader Newt Gingrich took the wrecking ball to Democratic Speaker Jim Wright. The deterioration continued through the period of the House bank scandal of the early 1990s and, if anything, reached new heights of acrimony after the Republicans became the House majority in 1994.

Minority status in the House is not much fun with House rules rigged decisively in favor of whoever has the 218 votes to make a simple majority, the minority party has few productive options. During much of the Democrats’ 40-year reign, the Republicans were a kind of Vichy government, collaborating with the Democrats and getting a small cut of whatever the dominant party wish to dole their way.

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There was, however, another model for the opposition and that was the one embraced by Newt Gingrich and his Conservative Opportunity Society and that was to be a burr under the Democratic saddle. Taking his lessons from the handbook of all successful insurgents, Gingrich taunted the Democrats, scolded and carped at their leaders, obstructed the legislative process with endless quorum calls on routine matters of business and otherwise became an abomination in the eyes of the members on the other side of the aisle.

When, at last, the Republicans gained the majority, they quickly learned to treat the Democrats with all of the contempt shown them when they were on the short end of the count. As the Republicans’ advantage in seats was reduced in the 1996 and 1998 elections, the atmosphere grew even more poisonous. Anything that threatened to give one side or the other a greater numerical advantage became a line in the sand.

As the Democrats once attempted to confer voting rights on the nonvoting delegates from the District or Columbia and the island territories (all Democrats), the Republicans have rallied to defeat every effort to use statistical sampling to eliminate the census undercount of racial minorities (mostly Democrats) and to forestall any gains in Democratic House seats. They have also battled over the ratio of Republicans to Democrats on the standing committees. The majority party always claims more seats, but the current battle is over just how much of an advantage the GOP ought to have.

But the problem that lies beneath all of the cut and thrust on Capitol Hill is the fact that a politically polarized electorate is sending men and women to Washington to do battle. So while surveys of the broader public indicate an distaste for partisanship, most House members depend on the passionate majorities that are politically active for their support. Be they African American members sent to Washington by devoutly pro-Clinton voters or Republicans elected with the help of conservative Christian groups, the problems of the House members are well beyond the therapeutic efficacy of a marriage encounter weekend.

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The margin of control is simply too small and the stakes far too large for this troubled relationship to respond to the minor anodyne of a guest appearance by a Nobel prize winner and some skits by an actor portraying Abraham Lincoln. Moreover, some members who are the most embittered by the impeachment will not be in attendance.

The House is an inherently partisan place because the electorate in most of the 435 districts is dominated by those who care the most about politics: conservatives and liberals. The voters have chosen representatives in their own image.

The impeachment did not by itself poison the wells in the House; they have been undrinkable for some time. When I spoke to a staff assistant to a Judiciary Committee member shortly after the impeachment, I remarked that the antipathy of the hearings probably caused Democrats and Republicans to stop talking to each other. She laughed and said, “Oh, they haven’t been talking for years.” Some quarrels can’t be patched up with a box of chocolates.


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