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Congress in My Lifetime

Tennessee former governors Phil Bredesen and Jim Haslam started a podcast in 2022 titled You May Be Right. These two men from opposing political parties were inspired by the late Howard Baker who always said, “Always remember that the other fellow might be right.” As a 71-year-old man I can remember when our public servants thought and acted like Senator Baker spoke. They listened to each other and accomplished many things for our country. They did not surrender their values but listened to the “other fellow.”

In the 1950’s the country needed new roads. In 1952 Dwight Eisenhower was elected President along with a republican majority in the House and the Senate. Eisenhower wanted to build new roads, but the republican Congress did not want to spend money. In the 1954 midterms the democrats regained control of the House and Senate. Democratic Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson went to work with Eisenhower to pass the Federal Highway Act of 1956. We now have the Interstate Highway System.

The 1960’s were a time of social upheaval particularly with civil rights. It was not a great time of pride for the democrat party as the “democratic South” blocked the advancement of individual rights. Howard Baker’s father-in-law Everett Dirksen was a republican Senator who worked closely with President Lyndon Johnson to pass needed legislation. Johnson and Dirksen busted the filibuster of southern democratic Senators to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Republican Dirksen was also instrumental in passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

President Richard Nixon wanted a domestic program to help offset the Watergate scandal. Nixon worked with the democratic Congress to pass the Comprehensive Employment Training Act. CETA was a program that trained the unemployed for jobs and offered incentives for employers to create new jobs. The program was popular and successful. I worked as a job developer for CETA in Knoxville for five years and was introduced to many life lessons.

President Ronald Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neil had an interesting and effective friendship. The President and Speaker had many philosophical differences but they met often to hammer out deals to push the nation forward. Along with Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker the President and the Speaker fashioned a compromise reform on Social Security that kept the New Deal Program funded. Reagan and O’Neil also reached a huge compromise on a tax reform bill in 1986.

President George H Bush faced a federal deficit that had increased by three-fold since 1980. President Bush went to work with democratic Speaker Tom Foley and democratic Majority Leader George Mitchell to slow the growth of the deficit. President Bush had to back off his promise not to raise taxes and democrats had to agree on cutting some government programs, but a new budget was passed.

The most amazing cooperation was between democratic President Bill Clinton and republican Speaker Newt Gingrich as they worked together to balance the budget. Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott along with both House democrats and Senate democrats worked on the historic balancing of the budget for the first time since 1969. While the President and Congress worked to balance the budget, Congress worked to impeach the President.

The last twenty years have seen little, if any, teamwork. President George W Bush had a republican Congress. President Barack Obama struggled with a Congress that blocked his programs. President Donald Trump worked with himself. President Joe Biden is in the middle of his struggle.

President Harry Truman said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” In the present day we do not seem to ever agree, our elected leaders lust after media exposure, not addressing the needs of their citizens. I congratulate our two former governors for stepping back into history and being true leaders and listening to Senator Baker and President Truman. I hope that the curve turns back to cooperation, but I am afraid it is not.

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