Are “Gangs” the Solution?

Gangs of lawmakers have been making news since at least the 1983 reform of Social Security. The theory is that smaller, nimbler groups including members from both parties are more likely to get results on contentious issues. While in recent years gang activity in the Senate has proliferated, their record has been at best spotty. Tricky political dynamics make it tough for even high profile senators to get results on major issues.

Gangs in history
This year we see a great deal of press on the bipartisan Gang of 8 in the Senate working on immigration reform.  But the first gangs to gain notoriety were the gangs of 9 and 5 that were essentially informal working groups in the 15-member 1982 Social Security Reform Commission. These gangs were a little different from the 21st century gangs in that they weren’t constituted solely of senators; in fact, they weren’t even entirely made up of lawmakers.

The Gang of 5 included senators Bob Dole (R-KS) and Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), as well as Rep. Barber Conable (R-NY). Other members of that group, as well as the larger Gang of 9, were not elected officials—most were Reagan administration aides including Chief of Staff James Baker and OMB head David Stockman.  They met at Baker’s Foxhall Road home and hammered out a compromise package to protect Social Security’s solvency. It was eventually passed into law in early 1983.

In 2005, an all-senator Gang of 14 also produced results. An equal number of Democrats and Republicans came together to develop a plan to head off Majority Leader Bill Frist’s threat to use the “nuclear option” to prevent Democratic filibusters of some of President Bush’s federal court appointees. The deal preserved the filibuster option while at the same time smoothing the approval process for some of the more contentious nominees.

Gang activity today
The idea of gangs is basically two-fold: one is it recognizes the fact that it is virtually impossible to get anything done in the Senate without both parties signing on; and second, that smaller groups of members working in private are more likely to be able to make the controversial compromises necessary to tackle the big issues.

For the last few years a bipartisan Gang of 6 senators has met on and off, often in members’ private homes, in order to hammer out a deal to break the seemingly interminable impasse on budget issues. They have even put forward proposals on occasion. These have gone nowhere—no hearings and no votes on the floor. Similarly, senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Patrick Toomey (R-PA) came together as their own little Gang of 2 with a specific background check proposal that received great praise. It did get a vote, but it was sent down to a crushing defeat to the surprise of many.

The immigration Gang of 8, which is composed of a diverse lot including conservative Republicans like Marco Rubio (R-FL) and liberal Democrats like Charles Schumer (D-NY), is sticking its collective toes in the water on that highly-charged issue. The battle lines are being drawn by members of both parties and interested groups across the political spectrum. So far the gang is sticking together despite considerable incoming flak. The jury is out on this effort, but it might be unwise to bet the farm on it.

Partisanship and gang suppression
While it is true that bipartisanship is indispensable to legislating in the Senate and that these gangs facilitate exactly that, it is also true that party leaders are wary of helping the “other team” achieve results. In particular, recent history suggests that minority party leadership in the Senate tends to frown on gang activity—or really almost any bipartisan efforts on high profile issues.

Even as prolific a dealmaker as Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) was often on the outs with his leadership when Democrats were in the minority precisely because his participation helped Republicans pass bills. The thinking was that this gave Republicans more to claim credit for, thus making it more difficult for Democrats to beat them in the next election cycle.

Today it is Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky who is less than enthusiastic about members on his side helping Democrats achieve their ends on contentious issues like immigration, gun control, or fiscal policy. So while the press lavishes attention on the gangs, it does not necessarily follow that they will successfully navigate the legislative process.