Story highlights

Julian E. Zelizer: Congress is deadlocked on many issues

Zelizer says the two houses lack the kind of dealmakers who used to craft major legislation

He says figures such as Wilbur Mills and Everett Dirksen loved the process of making laws

In Lyndon Johnson, they had a president who also knew the ins and outs of Congress, he says

Editor’s note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter,” published by Times Books, and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush’s administration, published by Princeton University Press.

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) – The troubled negotiations over the debt ceiling have offered yet another reminder of the perilous state of Congress. Republicans and Democrats have found it to be virtually impossible to reach a deal.

At one point, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, simply bolted from the room and refused to come back. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, started his discussions with President Barack Obama by announcing that there would be absolutely no give from the GOP on tax increases.

Congress constantly fosters an environment that is not conducive to bipartisan negotiations. Legislative leaders are reluctant to reach out to the other side of the aisle, knowing there is little chance their opponents will work with them and realizing that anything they say can be used against them in the court of the 24-hour news cycle.

Legislators thrive on a style of confrontational politics where the point of the game seems to be which side can subvert progress more effectively. Either one party has enough muscle to push through legislation on its own, or it’s unlikely that any deal will be reached, regardless of the cost to the nation.

There was a time when Congress worked differently. During the committee era, which lasted from the 1910s through 1970s, bipartisan dealmakers were the kings of Capitol Hill. Legislating was seen as an art, and producing policy was the objective.

In the House, one of the legends of the committee era was Wilbur Mills, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Before this Arkansan became famous for taking a dip with a stripper in the Tidal Basin, Mills was one of the most powerful figures in Washington. His committee controlled jurisdiction over Social Security, Medicare, trade and income taxation, and it made all committee assignments for the Democratic Party.

When he wanted to, Mills could drive fellow Democrats and Republicans crazy by being obstinate.

From 1961 through 1964, Mills stifled Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in their drive to pass hospital insurance for the elderly (which the media dubbed Medicare). Mills argued that the program would force Congress to raise Social Security taxes too high and worried that doctors were right about the potential in the program for ushering in socialized medicine.

Behind the scenes, however, Mills worked on a deal by pushing for administration officials to make adjustments to their proposal’s tax structure to lower the burden on the payroll tax and to exclude certain physician services from the compulsory parts of the program. The Democratic landslide in 1964 brought in a large number of members into the House who were determined to vote for Medicare.

Realizing that pure obstruction was no longer an option, Republicans offered a proposal of their own: a voluntary program to cover physicians’ services. Republican Thomas Curtis sponsored yet another bill written by the American Medical Association that provided state-administered health care for the poor. The danger was that the existence of three proposals could siphon off the votes needed to pass any one of the bills.

During the closed room committee meetings, Mills surprised everyone by combining all three proposals into a “three-layer cake,” building on discussions he had with Johnson. By doing so, Mills undercut his Republican opponents and emerged as the architect of the bill that he once opposed. “The effect of this ingenious plan is, as Mr. Mills told me, to make it almost certain that nobody will vote against the bill when it comes on the floor of the House,” one policymaker explained.

Sen. Everett Dirksen was another legislative giant from this period. A Midwestern conservative known for his baritone voice and overly dramatic speeches, Dirksen was a pivotal figure for Johnson between 1964 and 1968. During the 1960s, Johnson needed Republican votes on domestic policy, particularly on civil rights, since Southern Democrats opposed these measures.

Dirksen was willing and eager to find points of compromise. In exchange for the administration dropping civil rights measures targeting business, Dirksen delivered the Senate Republicans that Johnson needed to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He did the same with voting rights a year later.

There are many reasons why we no longer see many dealmakers such as Mills or Dirksen on Capitol Hill. Both men thrived on backdoor deliberations, secret to the public and even to interest groups, that no longer felt acceptable in the aftermath of Watergate. Congress passed sunshine laws to open up deliberations to the public, and the 24-hour news media didn’t allow legislators to avoid the scrutiny of reporters.

Mills and Dirksen also depended on political parties that were ideologically diverse since this allowed them to build coalitions between the parties. Southern Democrats frequently voted with Republicans, and liberal Northeastern Republicans often allied with Democrats.

Both men also had a love of legislating. Unlike 2011, when American culture thrives on railing against Washington, this was an era when talented men were more than happy to devote their lives to the tasks of governance and believed that passing legislation was an exciting task. As Dirksen liked to say, the “oil can is mightier than the sword.” Indeed it was common for legislators in this period, such as Speaker Sam Rayburn, to avoid the media purposely when possible.

Finally, at their most productive moments in 1964 and 1965, they depended on a president – Lyndon Johnson – who also loved the nitty-gritty of the legislative process. Johnson was a president who knew how to take the seemingly dysfunctional aspects of Congress – such as the divided parties that often prevented progress on legislation – and use them to his advantage.

Hopefully, Congress will reach a deal with the White House and keep the nation’s financial house in order. But the fact that we have another example of what should be a routine decision turning into high-stakes gamesmanship should be a stark reminder that we need Congress to work better than this.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian E. Zelizer.