I covered the House of Representatives for the Associated Press for a year or so during the 1960s and left with profound respect and affection for what is really a unique American institution. For years as a foreign correspondent I would extol the genius of our House against the lap dog role played by Houses in the parliamentary system used by democratic countries in Europe and former British dominions like Canada. That is why, though Congress has obviously been changing its mood for several years, I could not believe until too late that the House would really forge ahead recklessly in December and approve the impeachment of President Clinton in so strident and partisan a manner. It was a sickening and disheartening spectacle.
Of course, the House has always had its partisan passions and rhetoric. But the representatives knew in the old days that the system would not work if they did not get along with each other, cater to each other's political needs, and compromise. Party discipline was weak. The Democrats had a bevy of Southerners who might vote with their colleagues on populist issues but swing to the Republicans on fiscal matters; on a more unsavory issue, most southerners also opposed the civil rights legislation pushed by big city northerners. The Republicans had what was known as the Wednesday Club (named for their weekly meeting day) in the 1960s - a group of 15 to 25 moderate Republicans like John Lindsay of New York, Silvio O. Conte of Massachusetts and Stanley Tupper of Maine who crossed party lines and voted for progressive Democratic legislation when they thought it right. Democratic leaders often needed these Republican votes to make up for lost Democratic votes. Bipartisanship reigned, and so did civility.
House Republican Leader Charles A. Halleck of Indiana, mean-spirited and vindictive, was a striking exception in those days. He had only contempt for the straying Wednesday Club Republicans and, unlike Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois, liked to snarl at Democrats, especially those in the White House. The Republicans finally tired of Halleck's bombast and replaced him in 1965 with Gerald R. Ford Jr. of Michigan. It was not an ideological shift. Ford was just as conservative as Halleck. But he had a reputation as a conciliator, a politician who harbored no hatreds or rancor, who could reach out to Democrats and Wednesday Club Republicans with warmth and good nature. He did not impress anyone as a master of acute thought. But his personable qualities made him a natural congressional leader and led to the vice presidency and, finally, to the succession of the fallen Richard Nixon.
In more than 20 years as a foreign correspondent, I often watched parliamentary systems at work, an experience that made me marvel even more at our Congress. Parliamentary systems depend on strict party discipline. If the parliament defeats a government on a major legislation, the government falls, the parliament dissolves and new elections are called. A member of parliament who breaks party ranks and votes against the government does so at the peril of losing his or her own seat in new elections in a few weeks. By definition, moreover, there is never divided government with parliament in the hands of one party and the office of prime minister in the hands of another. The prime minister always comes from the party or coalition of parties that controls parliament. As a result, there is no need in a parliamentary system for cajoling and compromise. The government can enact almost anything while the opposition puts on a show of partisan outrage to hide its impotence. The system is efficient but at heart undemocratic. There is no way for the public or interested groups to mold or influence legislation except by their votes every five years or so. This frustration sometimes drives people to demonstrate and riot in the streets as their only means of stopping legislation. When that would happen in a country like France, I would self-righteously tell friends that these riots would be unlikely in the American system. Since there is no party discipline, legislation moves slowly in the U.S. House and Senate. Interest groups, I explained, have many chances - through committee hearings, through lobbying - to influence legislation. There is no need to take to the streets.
It was thus a surprise to return to the United States and find Newt Gingrich, a self-proclaimed scholar of American history and political science, behaving in Congress as if the United States had a parliamentary system of government. Out of power, Gingrich slashed at the majority as if the opposition had no other function than to oppose. In power, Gingrich took on the mantle of a prime minister and tried to ram through his Contract for America as if it were the platform of a victorious party in Britain. He somehow assumed that the President would own up to the election returns and play possum for the rest of his term. When Clinton fought back, the Republicans foolishly shut down the government.
But it would be wrong to let all the blame fall on Newt. The Senate has lost much civility as well. A couple of years ago, Sen. Ernest Hollings, a Democrat from South Carolina, mused about the change of mood in the Senate. As chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Hollings always dealt with the ranking Republican member, Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, as a partner, conferring with him on all legislation. Now, Hollings told the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, he was the ranking Democrat on the committee, but the new Republican chairman, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, never spoke to him. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the Republican majority leader before he resigned to run against Clinton in 1996, was one of the few Republicans willing to hobnob with Democrats. "I never thought I would see the day when Bob Dole would be considered cuddly," said Hollings.
The mood in Congress is disquieting. Ideology is no longer chic in the rest of the world. French professors bemoan the fact that students in France, the cauldron of ideas for centuries, now turn their backs on all ideology. Leftists in Europe have learned that they can climb to power only if they abandon their apostles and look for the bland, pragmatic middle. Yet, while the rest of the world has given up ideology, the American radical right has embraced it. I do not believe our system can work well with ideologues at the helm. I suppose the Senate will realize this and bring the unseemly impeachment rush to a moderate close. In the meantime these are sorry times.