To Cooper, the true villain is not the Tea Party; itâ€™s Newt Gingrich. In the 1980s, when Tip Oâ€™Neill was speaker of the House, â€œCongress was functional,â€ Cooper told me. â€œCommittees worked. Tip saw his role as speaker of the whole House, not just the Democrats.â€
Gingrich was a new kind of speaker: deeply partisan and startlingly power-hungry. â€œHis first move was to get rid of the Democratic Study Group, which analyzed bills, and which was so trusted that Republicans as well as Democrats relied on it,â€ Cooper recalled. â€œThis was his way of preventing us from knowing what we were voting on. Today,â€ he added, â€œthe ignorance around here is staggering. Nobody has any idea what theyâ€™re voting on.â€
In the Oâ€™Neill era, when an important issue was being debated, there were often several legislative alternatives. But, under Gingrich, â€œthat was eliminated in favor of one partisan bill,â€ said Cooper. That continued after the Democrats retook the House in 2006. â€œWe no longer search for the best ideas or the best policies,â€ he said. â€œThere was only one health care bill offered. One Dodd-Frank. Now you are either an ally or a traitor.â€
Cooper was rolling now. â€œThe real problem with big issues like Medicare is that both parties have to be brave at the same time,â€ he said. â€œEvery pollster will tell you not to do that to get partisan advantage. Too many people here are willing to deliberately harm the country for partisan gain. That is borderline treason.
â€œThis is not a collegial body anymore,â€ he said. â€œIt is more like gang behavior. Members walk into the chamber full of hatred. They believe the worst lies about the other side. Two senators stopped by my office just a few hours ago. Why? They had a plot to nail somebody on the other side. Thatâ€™s what Congress has come to.â€
Inevitably, Cooper turned to the subject of money in politics. â€œMoney changes hands here way too much,â€ he said. â€œMembers buy their way onto committees. When I first came to Congress, the party was supposed to help you. Now, when a new member is sworn in, he or she is told what their dues are â€” how much they are expected to raise for the party for the next election. Itâ€™s worse in the Senate. It turns the whole place into a money machine.â€