Asking Washington political insiders to list the most aggressive partisan street fighters in Congress over the past 50 years is like asking baseball fanatics to agree on an all-time all-star team. Democrats have their favorites and Republicans have theirs, and depending on whether you’re a lobbyist, a pundit, a scholar or a Hill staffer, you’re likely to have a different take on the question.
Still, with the help of dozens of political observers, Roll Call has assembled a list of the top 10 most partisan Congressional “street fighters” from the past 50 years.
The criteria, while somewhat subjective, are those Members who are viewed as the most combative, most effective at using partisanship for political gain and most likely to show a virtual disregard for the other side of the aisle.
Our panel of experts agreed that the two chambers generate two entirely different types of partisan Members. House Members more freely take off the gloves and engage in hand-to-hand combat with their colleagues. They have been known to manipulate the rules to their advantage.
The Senate, on the other hand, breeds more civility because the institution’s size and its rules require both parties to work together more often.
In the Senate, “you have 100 people who see each other and get to know each other,” said Norman Ornstein, a Congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a Roll Call contributing writer. “In the House, you can go through years without meeting your colleagues on the other side. You don’t think of them as human beings.”
Something else most of our observers agreed on is that the institution has become more partisan in recent years — a reality that has helped skew our list toward the recent end of the 50-year spectrum.
Political handicapper Charlie Cook pointed to a decrease in bipartisan trips and shorter work weeks as factors that tend to drive Members of different parties apart. Congress, he said, has become “pretty close to a dysfunctional institution.”
Still, despite the growing partisan bitterness, there is wide agreement that no Member is entirely partisan all the time. Students of Congress also note that not all partisans are identical. Some are stylistically moderate but ideologically partisan, while others are partisan through and through, both in their approach and their convictions.
With those caveats in mind, here are Roll Call’s picks for top partisan street-fighters. They are listed chronologically by year of election to Congress — five Republicans and five Democrats, and five Senators and five House Members.
Rep. Jim Wright (D-Texas), Served 1955-1989, Speaker, 1987 -1989
Wright succeeded Rep. Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) as Speaker in 1986, beating out then Democratic Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (Ill.) and current Rep. John Dingell (Mich.) — two strong-willed personalities in their own right. Wright was known as a deal cutter and a shrewd legislator, someone who carried unyielding principles and serious ambitions.
Wright frequently faced the ire of Republicans, who had by then been in the Congressional minority for several decades. Many GOP Members felt he ran over them and paid little attention to their views or ideas. Wright felt he didn’t need to consider the minority, which is not surprising, given that the Democrats in the 1980s held the chamber by a sizeable majority.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.