October 24, 2022

1967. Polarization in Congress

The 90th Congress Set to Begin Session
"Opening day of the 90th Congress," January 10, 1967 (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

January 3, 1967

In just a week from today the new 90th Congress of the United States will be gaveled into session, and already Washington columnists and reporters like myself are looking for an ear-catching name for it.

Considering the gains made by the Republicans in last year's off-year elections, the GOP leadership might want to label it the "nifty 90th," which just might possibly produce the man and a program which could defeat the majority Democrats in 1968.

According to what the new Congress does—or does not do—to the Johnson Administration's program, the Democrats might end up calling it the "nefarious" or the "naughty 90th," or perhaps even the "nasty 90th Congress."

Whatever it's called will not depend solely on the Republicans nor on the Democratic senators and representatives alone. Ever since Franklin Roosevelt's first New Deal, Congress has been divided by economic and social issues that cut along party lines. It's no longer enough for a man just to gallop the Democratic donkey or Republican elephant into Congress. Just as important is the question of whether he rides hardest on the right or leans furthest to the left of the saddle.

In other words, the political divisions in the new 90th are not only designated by party label. The members will also find themselves branded with either the conservative or liberal mark.

If you think this is confusing, just wait. The problem of identification of the members of Congress is even further complicated by the fact that no grassroots Solomon or professional politician has emerged here or anywhere else who can give a hard and fast definition of what exactly a liberal or conservative is, because the definitions must change with the times and the issues confronting each new Congress.

For example, some of Capitol Hill's leading so-called liberals today are sounding like America First right-wingers of twenty-seven years ago on the question of US Vietnam policy. On the other hand, some Congressional conservatives would seem to be committing political heresy by backing government efforts to improve the quality and quantity of US education and aid to the nation's elderly.

Consequently, as of now there's no dependable way to draw up a form sheet for the new 90th Congress, because until they get themselves on the record with a series of key votes, you cannot tell the players by their states or numbers—only by their actions.

There is one thing to watch for in the new, nervous 90th after it gets underway. Look to the membership and strength of what's called the "conservative coalition." The Republicans and Democrats who belong to this nebulous voting cartel usually deny that such a thing exists.

Whether it's organized or not, the so-called conservative coalition is usually made up of Democrats from the Deep South, plus Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas, and right-leaning Republicans which form a majority of the GOP membership on some key issues. The landslide vote which swept Lyndon Johnson into office in 1964 pretty well cut the GOP props out from under the bipartisan conservative group and enabled the Democratic administration to push through the president's sweeping Great Society program.

However, the Republican gains last November appears to have rejuvenated the old GOP-Dixiecrat voting cartel, which can only mean difficulty and trouble for the Johnson Administration's free-swinging domestic programs and policies.

Poetically, a rose by any other name is just as sweet. In politics it's different. We'd bet that before the new Congress is many months old, the White House will be calling it the "noxious, no-good 90th"—and that will be just a starter.

This is Bill Downs for ABC in Washington.