How Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan would make this Congress work

When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, Democrats lost 23 seats, but still controlled the House 244 to 191. In the Senate, Democrats lost 12 seats and gave up control to the Republicans by a margin of 53 to 46, with one independent. We had a divided government.

Tip O'Neill, who was Speaker of the House at that time, could have insisted that any bill coming out of his chamber have a majority of Democrats supporting it, but he knew that he did not have that kind of power and really did not want it. He told the new president that "We will cooperate in every way" — not that Democrats would necessarily vote for what the president wanted, but that we would allow the House to work its will. Tip also recognized that the people of America had voted for change and the new president deserved a chance to pass his agenda. That required at least 26 Democrats (usually a few more) on every bill, because even then some Republicans and Democrats would not vote for anything.

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As the leader of the Boll Weevils (the 1980s version of today's Blue Dog Coalition) in my second term, I learned to appreciate the challenges of leadership faced by the Speaker and the president everyday. I also learned how to legislate, and the importance of compromise. The 1981 budget battles were hard fought, but every member who had an idea was given an opportunity to put it to a vote. After all of the voting, a budget was passed with bipartisan support, and those recorded votes became ammunition for opponents to use in the '82 elections. As well they should have been!

The 113th Congress had little to show for all its effort. The 114th Congress will have many opportunities, but I will suggest three critical areas of focus in order to follow the template of Tip and the Gipper, as Chris Matthews so aptly titled his excellent book about Congress — subtitled When Politics Worked.

1. Pass a budget. As the House and the Senate begin the budget process, it hopefully will fix our nation's debt in regular order. That would mean by April 15, with reconciliation instructions to be completed by June 15, we could begin addressing the economic challenges facing our country in a meaningful, supportive, and sustainable way. If Boehner (like Tip) allows unlimited (within reason) amendments so that everyone can vote in the absence of party litmus tests, the legislative and political process will begin to work again. The final package will be at its best if it has bipartisan support, as was the case in 1981. And even if it were 100 percent partisan, it would still be very illuminating for the voters in November 2016. Defending serious, recorded votes has been missing lately in the political process. This would also include Democrats having to defend any vetoes by the president, such as the Keystone XL pipeline bill, in the full context of what is good for America.

2. Pass a comprehensive immigration bill that the president will sign, or override his veto. This issue is too important to be held hostage any longer for shallow political purposes. The various committees which have jurisdiction should meet and hold votes on all of the issues at hand. The leadership should then bring a comprehensive bill to the floor under an open rule and allow as many votes on the record as are needed to pass the bill. It is vital to our people and our national security, as well as our food production system, that we have a new, enforceable, comprehensive immigration system that controls our borders, working with — not against — our neighbor to the south.

3. Address the issues that are making it harder for some folks to vote. Voting should be easy, not hard. If money is equivalent to speech, then at least make it transparent so the people know whose money and/or mouth the speech is coming from. Mouths are easy for most folks to identify; money, well, that is a growing problem!

Our political system is broken. The people eventually, through their votes, will fix it if they are given something to vote for or against. But in the short run, we depend on those we just elected, under a system that is still the envy of most of the world. There is an old cowboy saying that fits the current Congress very well: "A job doesn't get done when it's started with a promise and finished with an alibi." Perhaps that same cowboy also observed: "You can't break a horse while sitting on the fence." Tip and the Gipper got a lot done, and the country benefited. They marginalized the wingnuts of their parties and allowed compromise to happen. Why not at least try it their way for one year? It will, at a minimum, make November 2016 more meaningful.

Stenholm is a former U.S. representative from Texas, serving from 1979 to 2005. He is currently a senior policy adviser at Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz PC.