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Where Political Theory Meets the Sausage Factory

When I first ran for Congress in 1986, I was not inclined to emphasize my previous career as a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University. But when I finally got together enough money to take a poll, I found that voters thought well of Duke and ranked teaching and writing about Congress highly as preparation for serving there. So I switched my strategy and cut an ad showing me at the blackboard!

While this experience says a great deal about the Research Triangle district I represent, the perception about political science was largely correct. I had some advantages that others lacked. I taught in departments where public service was viewed positively, and I had areas of study — American political thought, the ethics of policy choice, and American government — which all were relevant in their own way.

It was not political science, however, that steered me into politics. What drew me to both study and activism was the formative experience of the civil rights movement. The climactic moment came in June 1964, when I crowded into the Senate gallery and witnessed a dying Senator being wheeled into the chamber to ensure passage of the Civil Rights Act. I have never since doubted that enough good people working together can right ancient wrongs, or that politics is an essential instrument of our common purpose.

At that time, I was focused on Congressional politics and policymaking, drawing on my graduate school summers as an aide to Sen. E.L. “Bob” Bartlett (D-Alaska). Using his help to get interviews with one-third of his colleagues, I wrote a doctoral dissertation on legislative initiative in the Senate.

These were the Great Society years, characterized by strong presidential leadership. But it was also a time marked by important changes in the Senate: the decline of the institutional folkways that had inhibited legislative activity down through the ranks and the emergence of a new breed of activist Senators such as Philip Hart (D-Mich.), Edmund Muskie (D-Maine), and Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.). My focus was on the “policy entrepreneurship” of such Members and their staffs, how it was encouraged or discouraged by conditions on various Senate committees, and how it shaped even major administration initiatives.

Eighteen years later, I was trying to become a policy entrepreneur myself, as a new Member of the House Banking Committee. What I had learned greatly influenced the way I deployed staff and sought a policy niche.

There have been other times when my political science background either drew me into something or influenced how I handled it. One was helping lead the successful 2000 effort to defeat biennial budgeting. Another was the press commentary and reform proposals that flowed from the 2000 Florida recount debacle. And the work we undertook in the early 1990s through the Frost-Solomon Task Force to extend support and assistance to the emerging parliaments of Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of communism was a political scientist’s dream — and a moving human experience as well. I am now preparing to help lead the Democracy Assistance Commission, recently established by the House, which will enable us to extend support to a new set of emerging democracies.

My approach to partisanship in the House was also shaped by my academic past. I drew on my experience as executive director and chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party and as staff director of the Democratic National Committee’s Commission on Presidential Nomination (the Hunt Commission) in writing “Bringing Back the Parties” in 1983-84. This left me with American political science’s affinity for “responsible party government” pretty well internalized. I have understood the value of party discipline and have tried to help achieve it among Democrats, mainly through the whip organization.

The developments of recent years have given me pause, however — and not simply because I now find myself in the House minority. Unified party control of the organs of government has proved no panacea. We Democrats tried hard to make it work in 1993-94 with mixed results; the 1993 deficit reduction package was no doubt our greatest achievement, but it was a difficult and politically costly victory.

In recent years, unified Republican control has facilitated passage of large tax cuts, a Medicare drug benefit of sorts, and various anti-abortion measures. But the list of failures is also long, including in the last Congress major transportation and higher education authorizations — measures which in years past were easily shouted through.

Moreover, the 2001 and 2003 tax measures are an unsettling reminder that unified party control is no guarantee of either coherence or fiscal responsibility. What then-Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman famously said of the budget process after Ronald Reagan’s first term is also true of unified party control and other systems often favored by champions of government efficiency: They can in fact magnify the effects of irresponsibility and error if badly used.

I have also come to understand Congress’ need for a bipartisan as well as a partisan capacity. Political scientists have written insightfully about the increases since 1970 in the homogeneity and organizational strength of each of the Congressional parties, but less about the dangers of more recent partisan excesses.

The greatly increased incidence of completely closed rules (from 9 percent in the Democratic 103rd Congress to 22 percent in the Republican 106th and 107th), the exclusion of Democrats from House-Senate conferences, the leadership’s commandeering of committee operations — such tactics go far beyond the normal partisan tit for tat, and they have resulted in extreme polarization. Can anyone imagine today’s Congress concluding anything like the 1990 bipartisan budget agreement, even though our long-term budget situation is far more threatening?

Congress needs strong parties, but it also needs the capacity to deal with budget and entitlement challenges that are likely beyond the reach of pure partisan exertion. It is on this question of partisan excess, perhaps more than any other, that the perspectives of my two careers converge: as a Member looking for a fair shake for my ideas and the people I represent, and as a political scientist and citizen concerned that real and lasting institutional damage is being done. We simply must do better.

Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) has been a Member of Congress since 1987.

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