"Let go of my tie," Congressman Bill Thomas from California snarled. Facing him, with a fistful of silk, was Florida Congressman Sam Gibbons, D, angrily railing at Thomas, R, and "the bunch of dictators." After 40 years of Democratic control, Gibbons was shut out and Newt Gingrich and Republicans were in charge in 1995.
It was payback time for four decades of high-handedness by Gibbons and his Democratic sidekicks. There followed 11 years of high-handedness by Thomas and his GOP pals, and then four years of the same from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her majority.
Over time, partisan rancor has only intensified. Republicans call Capitol police to arrest Democrats. Democrats shut Republicans out of debates. Republicans stop talking to Democrats, and vice versa.
Which brings us to 2011, and Republican leader John Boehner's promise that this time things will be different, a sentiment frequently echoed by President Obama. They'd better change. The stakes are simply too high.
Against long odds, U.S. troops are waging two complex, costly wars. Nearly 14 million people are out of work, and another 8 million are underemployed. Washington is following a path of steadily higher budget deficits. And states, which have closed $430 billion in deficits since 2009, now face a $175 billion gap. They are closing it by cutting essential police, education and elder services.
That's today's agenda. Tomorrow's is even more daunting as health care costs grow, Medicare financing unravels, a backlog of needed repairs escalates and the nation's education and re-education system faces unyielding pressure from children and adults.
Boehner and Obama say the right things. "What I got out of the election is not so much that we won, but they lost," Boehner said. "Now we've been given a second chance. But we have to go earn it." And in his State of the Union address, Obama noted lawmakers who sat next to each other for the speech: "What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow."
Indeed. There's a long history of bipartisan cooperation and compromise. Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower and a Democratic Congress authorized a national highway system. Republican Ronald Reagan and a Democratic Congress stabilized the Social Security system and rewrote the tax code. Shortly after the Gibbons-Thomas scuffle, Democrat Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress forged an agreement that balanced the federal budget for four years.
Today, both parties are playing chicken, hoping to force the other into a suicidal if courageous act of actual deficit cutting. In the meantime, interest on the national debt costs the average American household an astonishing $2,000 a year. It's tomorrow already, time to bury the hatchet and get to work.
Jim Toedtman is editor and vice president of AARP Bulletin.