After the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, many thought his greatest policy initiative, the 1963 Civil Rights Act, would be buried with him. It was not.
The man who would take President Kennedy’s failed Civil Rights Act, and bulldoze it through the Congress using tact, skill, intimidation, and cunning was a man who had been one of the most influential elected officials in U.S. history. He was also, for all intents and purposes, a creature of United States politics.
If the American electorate is serious about breaking gridlock in Washington, we need to ditch the idea that neophyte candidates will ride into DC and rid it of its wretchedness. This is a fantasy and it’s killing the legislative process.
By all accounts Lyndon Baines Johnson used bribes, threats, collusion, aggression, and intimidation to push the Civil Rights Act through an extremely resistant legislature and the country was better for it. To break gridlock in Washington we should re-think some of the things that we decry the most.
Backroom Deals are Good for Democracy
At the end of 1963, the Civil Rights Act was all but dead. President Kennedy had been unable to get the bill past the gatekeepers in the Republican-controlled House Rules Committee, chaired by segregationist Howard Smith of Virginia.
To get Smith and other Republicans to allow the bill to have a hearing, Johnson went to Republican Majority Leader Charles Hallock. In exchange for allowing the Civil Rights Act through Republican-controlled committees, Johnson would put a NASA research facility in Hallock's district.
One could point to the deal between Johnson and Hallock as an example of corrupt collusion between two self interested politicians. They would be right. But they would also have to recognize that because of the horse trading, the Civil Rights Act passed and Purdue now has a NASA research facility.
President Johnson's skill in attacking legislative inaction was built over years of observing and practicing political negotiations. It takes years of experience to be able to understand and manipulate the mechanisms of government.
It was also Johnson's tact in ceding ground that allowed the bill to come to a vote -- a concept that a neophyte group of conservative members of Congress is currently having a tough time comprehending.
Spending Your Life in Politics... Makes You Good At Politics
Once the Civil Rights Act moved from the House to the Senate, the Johnson administration faced a new problem. Southern segregationist were holding the administration's tax cut bill hostage as leverage against the Civil Rights Act.
However, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Harry Bird and President Johnson were old friends, having served alongside each other in the Senate. The two discussed the deal over a White House lunch where a deal was made. If the president delivered a budget under $100 billion, Byrd would release the tax bill and allow it to come up for a vote.
The budget came in at $97 billion and Byrd cast the final vote to allow for a vote before actually voting against the measure. The bill passed and the president could now focus his energies on moving the Civil Rights Act through the Senate.
Johnson’s deal in the Senate would not have been possible without a strong relationship with Senator Bird -- a senator, mind you, who was a fierce segregationist. Another example of how experienced politicians with strong relationships are instrumental in the legislative process.
Today’s Congress is full of members who were elected with a mandate that punishes building alliances across the aisle. Not only do many of the new, extremely conservative members have to be weary of a challenge from the right, they are also pressured into raising an absurd amount of money, limiting the amount of time they have to build relationships and learn how to legislate.
A Case for Insiders
Before assuming the presidency, Lyndon Johnson spent a lifetime in politics. He started as a legislative aid at the age of 22. At the age of 29, he was elected to Congress. At 40, he was elected to the Senate, and at 56 he assumed the office of the presidency.
Johnson never ran a business or had a career outside of politics. As it turns out, this made him very good at getting things done. A person of LBJ’s talents and impact would not have been possible with a political outsider.Discontent with today's Congress is justifiable, but the frustration is often channeled through various calls for misguided reforms, often calling for term limits and the need for “outside the beltway” candidates to come in and clean house.
If the Civil Rights Act teaches us anything, it is that nothing can replace experience. It would be like Apple trying to fix its map app by bringing in Tom Brokaw.
With that said, today’s Congress doesn't need more outsiders -- it needs less. It doesn't need representatives with less experience in Washington; it needs people who have been there long enough to know how the system operates and how to manipulate it.
If Congress is ever going to get back to work, it needs people there who know how to work it and voters wise enough to send them back when they deserve it.