That U.S. Senator Rob Portman is retiring is unlikely to be regretted by most Street Sense readers. He’s a Republican from Ohio. There are plenty of votes he cast over his years in office that will not please many Democrats—and there will probably be more before he retires.
But Portman played a key role in negotiating last December’s FY 2021 bipartisan funding agreement, which provides $25 billion for emergency rental assistance. “Stable housing is a key factor to keeping people out of poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made this issue more important than ever,” he said in a December statement.
He and his Democratic colleague Colorado Senator Michael Bennett co-sponsored the Evictions Crisis Act, parts of which were incorporated in the agreement. Their bill drew praise from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Years ago, Representative Stewart McKinney, a Republican from Connecticut, was a lead co-sponsor of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1986, which provided federal money for homeless shelters. Co-sponsors included 99 Democrats and 12 Republicans including Representatives Marge Roukema of New Jersey, Connie Morella of Maryland, and Nancy Johnson of Connecticut.
But the atmosphere regarding bipartisan cooperation—especially regarding human needs issues such as homelessness and housing—has changed significantly, particularly in the House, where districts are often packed with one party’s voters or the other.
Back in 1989, I remember a conversation with a colleague at the conservative research foundation where I worked. He combined the buoyant positivity of Franklin Delano Roosevelt with a Newt Gingrich-style “movement conservatism” that often overrode traditional conservatism’s desire for stable, orderly change.
He’d just met with a pollster and remarked that the electorate agreed with so much of the conservative agenda that it was imperative to go back and repolarize the electorate even more. That should have been a warning flag as to how our country would develop.
Over time, that repolarization—particularly during the Gingrich-led GOP in the 1990s, the tea party, and the Trump years—involved advancing an agenda premised on “less taxes, less spending, less government, more freedom.”
But that “freedom” comes at a cost to low-income Americans.
The 2019 Gallup “Not Just a Job” report showed most low-income workers lacked benefits from employers such as health care, disability insurance, maternity/paternity leave, and retirement benefits, compared to higher income American workers.
It’s worth noting how in years past politicians from both sides of the aisle with very different political views and from very different districts combined to advance programs that helped low-income Americans like the food stamp program.
In a 2017 article for The Atlantic, congressional scholar Norm Ornstein noted how Senators George McGovern (D-SD) and Bob Dole (R-KS) clashed bitterly over Vietnam policy yet ended up working together on the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs to support the food stamps program.
Such alliances in this more polarizing era happen but more rarely—particularly as reapportionment has packed U.S. House districts to be “safe” for one party or the other and it is now even more complicated after the Trump era. Democrats in Ohio could elect someone like Tim Ryan or Amy Acton, Democrats likely to run for Portman’s seat. But Ohio went for Donald Trump in 2020.
In a 2012 commentary, economist Bruce Bartlett cited conservative-minded leaders, such as Britain’s Winston Churchill and Germany’s Otto von Bismarck, who supported elements of the welfare state, to ensure social stability and to preserve capitalism, albeit in a less laissez-faire form.
As America struggles with increased food and housing insecurity in the wake of the pandemic, it would be worthwhile to see the GOP reassess its mindset, embracing the standpoint suggested by Bartlett.
Of course, an open-minded, fair intra-party debate will never occur in the foreseeable future given how Trumpism dominates the House GOP, much of the party’s ranks in the Senate, and its allied organizations and media outlets. Then, there’s the GOP House leadership’s refusal to convincingly rebuke its members who embrace conspiracies and authoritarianism, an even greater obstacle to its becoming a responsible opposition party—not one devoted to sheer obstruction. Meantime, our civic and social fabric remains in the intensive care unit.
Stephen Lilienthal is a freelance writer living in Washington, DC.