The Hatfields and McCoys

“These guys are like the Hatfields and McCoys. That’s why they can’t get anything done in Congress.”

My cab driver pretty much nailed it on the head. Relations between the Democrats and the Republicans in Congress have taken on all of the characteristics of that famous family feud. 

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The Hatfield-McCoy feud started out when a McCoy came home from the Civil War as a Union soldier, angering a group of Hatfields, who had formed a pro-Confederacy vigilante group called the “Logan wildcats.” They promptly murdered him. 

For the next three decades, members of the Hatfield and McCoy families took turns murdering one another, piling grievance over grievance, and contributing to the general lawlessness of the mountainous region between West Virginia and Kentucky. 

Like that brawl, the fight between the Republicans and Democrats in the Congress is based on distrust, regional bias and an irrational desire for revenge. 

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) summed it up pretty well when he said, “In the end it didn’t pass because we’re so politicized. There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it.”

But this just isn’t a Republican issue. And it isn’t a new one, either. 

I remember distinctly when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) instructed her Democratic colleagues to not cooperate with Republican efforts to modernize Medicare with a prescription drug benefit during the Bush administration. Then-Speaker Denny Hastert (R-Ill.) did everything in his power to get the minority on board, but it wasn’t until Republicans could prove they had the votes — which took a three-hour roll call on the House floor — that Pelosi allowed her caucus to vote for the final package. 

The roots of this distrust probably started in 1984, when congressional Democrats strong-armed the seating of Rep. Frank McCloskey (D-Ind.) over the intense objections of House Republicans, who believed that Rick McIntyre had won the seat. 

The McCloskey-McIntyre feud helped radicalize House Republicans, and eventually they flocked to the leadership of Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who offered a new and more aggressive political strategy of demonizing Democrats. Eventually, Gingrich succeeded in bringing ethics charges against Rep. Jim Wright (D-Texas), who resigned in disgrace. 

When Gingrich gained the Speaker’s gavel, congressional Democrats launched a tough ethics-based campaign against the firebrand Republican, and the damage he sustained during that effort eventually drove him from the office. 

The ethics wars subsided during the bulk of the Hastert years, as the new Speaker tried to move on from the Clinton impeachment and as the country came together post-9/11. 

But they never quite disappeared, and by the second term of the Bush administration, the Jack Abramoff and Mark Foley scandals once again roiled the House. 

The backdrop of these ethics wars was an ideological re-sorting of the parties, led by House redistricting but by no means restricted to the lower chamber. Blue Dog Democrats were targeted for extinction by Pelosi, and centrist Republicans like the late Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) and former Gov. Charlie Crist (Fla.) were chased out of the GOP by right-wing insurgents. 

In this blood feud, it is not enough to be either a Republican or a Democrat. You have to pledge ideological fidelity to a set of beliefs, and more importantly, you have to demonstrate dislike and a certain amount of disgust for the other team. 

It is awfully hard to legislate in divided government amid a feud. 

Some will see this as a Republican conspiracy against President Obama, but this feud pre-dates the rise of the former Illinois senator. 

Eventually, the Hatfields and McCoys got tired of feuding. On June 14, 2003, the two families signed an official truce, and today, you can go see the “Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Show” in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and get a few laughs at the expense of the former feuders. 

Hopefully, in 100 years, someone will find a good reason to laugh at the congressional family feud. Today, though, it’s not very funny.

Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at www.the
feeherytheory.com.