It was a painful tableau: The bipartisan leaders of Congress linking hands in the Capitol Rotunda and swaying to the strains of “We Shall Overcome” as they commemorated the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi sang along with the crowd, but Mitch McConnell and John Boehner’s lips were frozen in silent, self-conscious smiles.
The climate in today’s Washington is so different from the one that produced what many scholars view as the most important law of the 20th century that celebrating the law’s legacy is awkward for Republicans and Democrats alike. Neither party bears much resemblance to its past counterpart, and the bipartisanship that carried the day then is now all but dead.
Congress is deadlocked on every big question, from immigration reform to a grand bargain on taxes and spending, so it’s hard to believe the two parties once cooperated to address the single most controversial domestic issue of the day — legal equality for the races — or that Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill 50 years ago Wednesday, in the middle of a presidential election year. Now Boehner is suing President Barack Obama for failing to faithfully execute the laws, and Reid inveighs daily about the Koch brothers’ contributions to GOP causes.