WASHINGTON — It would be hard to argue with the premise that Congress has become a largely dysfunctional institution, plagued by partisan rancor.
When our nation came together after Sept. 11, 2001, truly a unique period of national unity, President Bush delivered a Sept. 20, 2001, address to a joint session of Congress, with Democrats and Republicans joining together on the steps of the Capitol to sing "God Bless America." But it didn't take long before the venomous partisanship returned, and it has continued since.
Similarly, Washington has become something of a pejorative term in the minds of too many Americans, a place where nothing seems to get done. For those of us who have lived in the city for a long time, 36 years in my case, we know that this is not exactly a fact, but we are also painfully aware that there is some truth in those accusations. President-elect Obama ran against the ways of Washington in his campaign last year. As of this past weekend, he has officially become a part of Washington.
The argument that Democrats are abolishing the secret ballot in union organizing elections will be potent. Is this the issue on which Democrats want to break their pick?
Other political news of note
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Negotiators say they are close to a deal to strengthen border security provisions in the Senate immigration bill, an agreement designed to draw more Republican votes and significantly strengthen the bill’s prospects of becoming law.
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- Obama tries for a repeat performance in Berlin
- Immigration negotiators eye border security compromise
With the 2008 elections behind us, Democrats have complete ownership of the two political branches of our national government. If things continue to fester, they get the blame.
While things hardly begin anew with a blank slate, Democrats must now set the tone for this new Congress. The route they take will in part help determine how successful they will be in addressing our nation's enormous problems.
If Democrats begin this new Congress with the arbitrary and capricious attitude of "our way or the highway," Republicans will not only have no incentive to cooperate, but it virtually guarantees an obstinate minority and that the cycle of partisanship and dysfunctionality will continue.
What that means is a policy of not jamming Republicans or shoving things down their throats. Such would be a short-term strategy with long-term costs.
The seating of Rep. Frank McCloskey by House Democrats after the contested election in Indiana's 8th District in 1984 was one of the major contributing factors to creating the current vicious cycle and led to the rise of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. Republicans who had been institutionalists became militants. With what it ultimately cost Democrats, it wasn't worth a single seat.
Video: Republicans vs. infrastructure fix? The House is not so much a challenge for Democrats, but they do have to remain mindful that the difference between where they are today and where they were four years ago is a little over five dozen Democrats sitting in seats that had previously been electing Republicans to Congress.
For the most part, there is very little liberal about these districts, other than the willingness to take a liberal attitude about throwing out an incumbent the constituents don't agree with.
The odds look high today that Democrats will end up with the contested Senate seat in Minnesota. The question is whether Democrats want to force it through now, creating new ill will, or let the process work its way out, with Al Franken seated a week or two late, after Republican Sen. Norm Coleman has exhausted his legal challenges. The temptation for Democrats will be to seat him now, but I believe the more prudent thing would be to not taint the well.
Another land mine Obama would be well advised to avoid is card-check legislation, which passed the House in March 2007 but stalled in the Senate.
No other issue on the political horizon today epitomizes the split between labor and business better than this one. Nothing else would decimate the coalitions that Obama and Senate Democrats will need to put together to move other legislation that is more essential in turning the economy around.
For congressional Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections and for Obama in 2012, re-election and staying in power will be determined more by their ability to get the country out of the economic ditch.
Fracturing coalitions of centrists with polarizing measures will only make their jobs more difficult. In Southern and border states, in states and districts with a history of voting Republican and having a sympathetic view toward business, card check is not going to go over well.
The argument that Democrats are abolishing the secret ballot in union organizing elections will be a potent one. Is this really the issue on which Democrats want to break their pick?
If Obama is going to truly change the ways of Washington, he will have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Congressional Republicans are exceedingly skeptical of him and his motives and assume the worst from Democratic congressional leaders.
But the public is giving Obama the benefit of the doubt and Republicans have to be careful to avoid being pegged as obstructionists. The Republican Party's stock today is about as low as it can get, but Democrats can hand them a way back by appearing just as partisan and ineffective as the public viewed Republicans when they were in power.
So, the question is whether Democrats can hold onto the high ground. The opposition party does not terminate a new president's honeymoon, but the actions of the new president and his party abbreviate their own honeymoons.
Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.