It has become a cliché to bemoan the partisan, paralyzed Congress. As long-time staffers for the late Senator Edward Kennedy, we know Congress can do better. Kennedy was able to pass consequential legislation in an atmosphere as poisonous as it is today.
In 1995, Republicans came storming into Washington on the heels of a stunning electoral victory that gave them control of both houses of Congress. Led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, their goal was to enact a radically conservative agenda. Many Democrats thought the only practical response to the Republican victory was to retreat. Kennedy disagreed. In the face of an apparently unstoppable conservative tide, he secured an increase in the minimum wage, reform of private health insurance, and the creation of the Child Health Insurance Program.
Kennedy had a three-part legislative strategy: substance, politics, and public relations. Mastering the substance of the issue was critical. But having a solid proposal was just the beginning. Politics included an inside game of working with colleagues and an outside game of mobilizing supportive interest groups. Public relations meant raising the issue’s visibility to a level where legislators had to pay attention.
A master of bipartisanship, Kennedy knew it was important to find Republican partners. For insurance reform, the partner was Senator Nancy Kassebaum, a moderate Republican. For CHIP, it was conservative Orrin Hatch. Some may wonder if partnerships of this kind are possible today, but pressures to toe the conservative line were also strong in the Gingrich era.
Kennedy succeeded in part because he worked hard at establishing personal relationships with his colleagues. Fellow senators liked him and knew that he was a man of his word. But personal relationships are just part of the equation. Once Kennedy found an interested Republican, he looked for a solution that could work for both of them. Kennedy was always willing to compromise, as long as the compromise was a principled one. On CHIP, for example, Kennedy gave up his preference for an uncapped individual entitlement, but the result was a giant step forward toward the goal he and Hatch shared: providing low-income children quality health insurance.
The increase in the minimum wage did not start out with bipartisan support. Republicans were bitterly opposed. But Kennedy fought to keep it in the public eye. Ultimately, he made the political cost of continued obstruction too high.
Today, as in the Gingrich era, the challenge is both to make progress on key problems and to defeat an equally radical conservative agenda. Paul Ryan, the newly elected speaker of the House, marked his ascension by declaring, “We’ve been too timid on policy; we’ve been too timid on vision.” Ryan’s vision is embodied in the “Ryan Budget” that has been virtually unanimously endorsed by congressional Republicans. That budget is essentially the Gingrich agenda reborn — privatize Medicare; cut Medicaid, block grants, and anti-hunger programs; slash education and other domestic programs; and cut taxes for the wealthy.
The Gingrich agenda was defeated because Kennedy urged his fellow Democrats to stand up and fight — and, critically, because they made a sustained effort to educate the public. Once the public truly understood the Republican agenda it became politically untenable.
No legislator of today possesses Kennedy’s unique combination of charisma, commitment, and political skill. But the lessons Kennedy taught can instruct any politician. And they can make today’s Congress work — work to meet the people’s needs and work to resist radical attempts to undermine our national commitment to social justice.Nick Littlefield and David Nexon served as senior staffers to Edward Kennedy. They are authors of “Lion of the Senate: When Ted Kennedy Rallied the Democrats in a GOP Congress,’’ which was published last week.