Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Maryland remembers a time two decades ago when things moved quickly in Washington and Democrats and Republicans weren’t constantly at each other’s throats.
It wasn’t that great.
“It was a very different world back then. The Republicans had not had a majority for 40 years,” said the 86-year-old Republican, who was first elected in 1992 — two years before the GOP seized its first House majority since 1954. “It was be agreeable and get what you can, because Democrats always win.”
The GOP takeover brought benefits for Republicans and Mr. Bartlett, a fiscal conservative who sometimes strayed from his party on energy policy and other issues. But he said the shift also began a hyperpartisan age with increasingly vicious fights and fewer and fewer accomplishments.
As he prepares to leave Washington after 20 years, the former NASA scientist, inventor and farmer who sought office more as a retirement pursuit than a lifelong career said it is time for Congress to finally learn how to compromise or risk sending the nation down a path to ruin.
“You shouldn’t want to pass a bill if the only votes you get are your party’s votes,” he said during an interview Wednesday with The Washington Times in his Capitol Hill office. “You’ll have to compromise or you’ll be dug in the way we are now, where nothing is happening.”
Former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a moderate Virginia Republican who served from 1995 to 2008, said the parties have separated during the past 10 or 15 years largely because of special interest groups, political pundits and media organizations who often hammer politicians for daring to stray from their party’s platform.
He said the result is that lawmakers do everything they can to satisfy their party base out of fear that some members — and not the opposing party — will be the ones to throw them out of office.
“I can’t tell you how many members come up to me and say, ‘I’m scared that some super PAC is going to drop $1 million on me in a primary,’” Mr. Davis said. “The incentive is to win the primary. They don’t care about independents because compromise tends to be punished, not rewarded.”
The separation of the parties has been 50 years in the making, said John Fortier, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Democracy Project.
He said conservative Democrats began vanishing as voters clamored for two parties with separate, distinct ideologies that could be held accountable in good and bad times.
He said partisan redistricting, polarizing primaries and less time spent talking over issues in Washington, among other factors, have contributed to the toxic climate.
Mr. Bartlett lamented those factors as he reflected on leaving office at year’s end after surviving an eight-way Republican primary but losing two weeks ago to Democrat John K. Delaney in a heavily gerrymandered district.
The congressman, who grew up during the Great Depression, had a life as a scientist before joining Congress at age 66, and spent nearly 30 years working for the federal government, IBM and as head of his own business.
He holds 20 patents for life-support and respiratory equipment used by military pilots, astronauts and emergency rescue personnel.