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.
As he approached retirement age, his worries that government was growing out of control led him to try his hand at politics. He lost races for the U.S. Senate in 1980 and the House in 1982.
“When I was younger and trying to raise a family, I had less time to think about that,” said Mr. Bartlett, who has 10 children. “But as I wound down, I had a little more time to think about it, and that’s why I ran.”
Mr. Bartlett is very much a party-line conservative. He joined the tea party — a group that reflected his long-standing fiscal views when it emerged — in 2010, and he signed Grover Norquist’s tax pledge that same year.
But he was one of just 27 House Republicans to vote against reauthorizing the USA Patriot Act in 2011, arguing that it was an affront to civil liberties.
He has fought in recent years for bipartisan legislation seeking to ban chimpanzee research and has been especially vocal on the need for renewable energy — a cause he said Democrats are leading, but mainly for environmental reasons rather than fossil-fuel depletion.
He helped found the Congressional Peak Oil Caucus in 2005. Caucus members argue that the world’s oil reserves are fast running out and that the U.S. must tackle its fossil-fuel dependence by investing in alternative energy.
Mr. Bartlett drives a Toyota Prius and claims to be the first member of Congress to own a hybrid car. His concerns have led him to stockpile food and supplies in a remote, solar- and wind-powered cabin in West Virginia, in case the nation’s energy grid fails one day.
“[Energy] is going to be the overarching issue for the next decade,” he said. “I think we would be more than lucky if we avoid a major geopolitical tension that could result in war in the next decade.”
The number of lawmakers who vote with moderate viewpoints have diminished in the past 30 years. A report this year by National Journal found that the number of legislators who don’t vote along partisan lines has dwindled to almost none.
In 1982, 344 members of the House had voting records between the most left-leaning Republican and most right-leaning Democrat. In 2011, that number was 16.
Fifty-eight senators in 1982 occupied that same middle ground. None did so last year.
The declining moderate influence on Capitol Hill has resulted in fewer politicians like Mr. Bartlett, who embrace some party ideals but are willing to work across the aisle and take stances that defy party lines.
Mr. Bartlett said he has gone to leaders of both parties with a proposal to avoid the “fiscal cliff” by instituting federal cuts and a simplified flat consumption tax that he predicts would save billions of dollars without raising taxes. Neither side has shown much interest.
With just a lame duck session separating him from retirement to his Buckeystown farm, he said both parties must find common ground and shared interests, but he appears uncertain that it could happen in the short term on fiscal issues.
Mr. Fortier suggested that long-term fixes are possible and could include opening primaries to independents, but the solution isn’t as simple as the parties agreeing to bury the hatchet.
“I think we can be better off than we are today,” he said.
Despite growing partisanship, Mr. Davis said, members of Congress have remained flexible on some topics but fiscal issues are by far the most divisive.
“If you can’t get a budget passed, it becomes a problem,” he said. “I think the answer is that you find adults who know how to put a deal together and talk to both sides.”