Americans seem obsessed with the idea… of ideologically pure lawmakers. Officials elected to go to Washington and fight the very process of legislating for the sake of political purity that has never existed. The 112th Congress has achieved a level of infamy not seen since the indolence of the 80th in 1947. Legislating is a messy process built upon compromise (often compared to sausage making.) Successful legislators find the balance between what Americans need and what they will tolerate. Compare our current crop, Boehner, Cantor, Reid, Kyl– with our very best:
5. Tip O’Neill– A Liberal Democrat able to survive the Reagan Revolution, O’Neill was a master deal-maker. Reagan and O’Neill were at odds over every major issue of the day, but they were able to keep the government running throughout the 1980’s. Reagan’s budgets included the social spending the Democrats demanded and O’Neill secured the defense increases Republicans pressed heavily for. The two men forged an unlikely friendship amidst their budgetary battles.
4. James Madison– It is easy to forget Madison’s career as a legislator, being the Father of the Constitution and all. Madison was the consummate pragmatist, willing to compromise when he believed the measure would build an enduring alliance. His coalition building forced the original states to give up western claims allowing the territories to form. He guided the Bill of Rights through the first Congress and built the foundation for the judiciary. Madison distinguished himself despite life long ill-health and jealous rivals like Patrick Henry (who did all he could to deny Madison a seat in the first Congress.)
3. Sam Rayburn– The picture of longevity and ethics, Rayburn served in the House from 1913-1961 and never once accepted government money for personal expenses. Rayburn fought for programs he believed in, regardless of their party of origin. He battled for the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt as well as the federal highway projects of Eisenhower. Rayburn set a powerful example for a generation of lawmakers (see #2.)
2. Lyndon B. Johnson– There has never been an arm-twister like LBJ. Many historians consider him the most effective Majority Leader in the history of the Senate. Central to his ability was intelligence; Johnson would learn as much as he could about the Senator(s) who needed persuading. With information in hand, he proceeded with the “Johnson treatment” and few could resist. LBJ brought these skills to the oval office, first passing the Kennedy agenda (including the Civil Rights Act of 1964) in just under 100 days. Later, he pushed the Great Societythrough a reluctant Congress.
1. Henry Clay– Andrew Jackson’s name is given to the era, but Clay was the essential American political leader. Clay transformed Speaker of the House from a ceremonial to a political position. He used his influence to push his American System that stabilized the country after the War of 1812. Clay brokered the Missouri Compromise which saved the Republic from collapse in 1820. The Nullification Crisis of 1831 was averted through Clay’s efforts. Clay again forestalled disunion in 1850 through another compromise. Far from perpetuating slavery, Clay’s efforts allowed essential social movements and political debate to occur. Had the Republic collapsed during his lifetime, the changes brought on by the Civil War might never have happened.