People are right to be extremely critical of the hyper-partisan ideological rigidity that retards our ability to deal with problems. But it is a mistake to apportion blame equally to both parties, and to both the executive and legislative branches of the government.

Commentators and others who take the morally and intellectual lazy path of pronouncing a plague on both their houses call to mind one of the most irritating features of my student days: the teacher who imposes a collective punishment on the whole class rather than take the trouble to discover who caused the problem. This is not only unfair. It also dilutes any deterrent effect that can come from the punishment.

We have serious deadlock at the federal level, primarily because the Republican Party decided five years ago that the appropriate response to the Obama presidency was obstruction. That was then exacerbated in 2010 by the ascendance to power within the Republican Party of the most conservative elements in American politics, embedded in the tea party.

When Bill Clinton was president and the Republicans controlled Congress for six years, there was an initial breakdown when Newt Gingrich decided to shut down the government. When that backfired politically, Clinton and the Republican majority embarked on a period of cooperation, which, interestingly, was not even interrupted by the impeachment fight. As a member of Congress during that time, I was critical of some of the things they came together to do, but I invite readers to go back and study the latter years of the 1990s. They will not find the references to gridlock and excessive hyper-partisanship that are a feature of more recent reporting.

When George W. Bush became president, the Republicans had majorities in both houses for six years, but even during that period Bush received significant cooperation from many Democrats. The “No Child Left Behind” law that was one of his proudest accomplishments was a product of a cooperative effort with Sen. Edward Kennedy. Bush also received some Democratic support for his tax cuts and the Iraq War. While I disagreed with these policies, they were adopted with significant cooperation between the parties.

Responsible political parties are a very important element in democracy. Without parties that differ on a range of issues, elections are purely about personalities. In democratic capitalist societies like ours, the basic fault line between the major parties is over where to draw the line between the private and public sectors. In a healthy democracy, both parties agree that each of these segments is important for the social good but have difference of opinion about the boundary between them.

Partisanship becomes a problem when those who are engaged in legitimate debates about issues on which the parties disagree become so embittered that they are unable to work together on those issues that should not be partisan.

I am very proud of a paradox in my own career: When Republicans were asked to vote on the Democrats degree of partisanship, and vice versa, I was the only one of the 435 members of the House who showed up on lists of both the most partisan and the most bipartisan. Where there were differences between myself and the bulk of the Republicans on issues such as tough financial reform, I fought very hard for my side. In other cases, for example in responding to the financial crisis at the request of the Bush administration in 2008, I was wholly bipartisan.

That last point is the most significant with regard to the notion that both parties are equally guilty of excessive partisanship. The Democrats took control of both Houses in January 2007. A year later, Bush approached Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leaders, and told them the economy was slipping and that we needed a stimulus.

Unlike President Obama’s experience with Republican leaders a year later, Bush was the recipient of full cooperation from Pelosi and Reid. In a hyper-partisan world, they would have said that Bush was on his own, understanding that the worst the economy did in 2008, the better it would be for the Democrats on Election Day. They did exactly the opposite and worked with Bush to try to stave off an economic slowdown.

Later that year, at the request of Bush’s Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson, I began work on legislation to impose stricter controls on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Contrary to the myth that the right wing has propagated, the Republicans had failed to do that in the 12 years in which they controlled Congress, and it was not until Democrats took over in 2007 that this was finally accomplished.

When the post-Lehman failure crisis hit in September 2008, Bush sent his top economic officials to the Democratic-controlled Congress to ask us to support the Troubled Asset Relief Program, a measure that we knew would be unpopular. But we also believed that without it, the economic crisis would have been much worse, so Democrats, including presidential candidate Barack Obama, and the House and Senate majorities, came to the administration’s aid. Obama, in fact, was far more supportive of Bush’s request than Republican presidential candidate John McCain, and House Democrats gave Bush much more support than Republicans.

This record of some bipartisan cooperation came to an abrupt halt in January 2009, when the Republicans decided that they would refuse any help to Obama. Their strategy became explicit in 2010 when Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell asserted that his No. 1 priority was to “make Barack Obama a one-term president.” (Had that been the No. 1 priority of Reid and Pelosi throughout 2008, our economic problems would have been far worse.)

Some have blamed Obama for the deadlock, arguing that he has not done enough to reach out to Republicans. But the record proves the opposite: the tea party-dominated Republican Party carries partisanship to the point where it will not cooperate on issues where there is agreement because it so profoundly disagrees on others. In the New York Times on March 4, one of the leaders of the tea party faction, South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, illustrated this point.

Gowdy and a fellow very conservative Republican had been invited to meet with Attorney General Eric Holder to discuss reducing excessive drug sentences. Gowdy said that he agreed that mandatory sentences “made little sense for minor offenses.” But having expressed his agreement with Holder, and his appreciation to Holder for reaching out – the Times then noted – Gowdy “doubts that a sentencing bill can pass the House, in part because voters in Republican districts oppose so many of the Obama administration’s policies. Mr. Holder’s push for same-sex marriage does not make it easier.”

Who then deserves the blame for the failure to move ahead on this legislation that is widely supported by both parties? The attorney general, acting as the president’s agent, meets with two very conservative junior Republicans and proposes legislation with which they agree substantively. But because their voters bitterly oppose the administration, and because Holder dares to support same-sex marriage, the tea party Republicans will not allow the House to adopt this particular policy on which they agree.

Before the tea party and its allies took over, responsible lawmakers disagreed on some issues, agreed on others, and didn’t allow the former to interfere with the latter.

When people talk about the extent to which hyper-partisanship has introduced dysfunctionality into our government, they should keep in mind McConnell’s declaration early in Obama’s term that defeating him was the No. 1 priority, and Gowdy’s explicit explanation that disagreement on same-sex marriage keeps Republicans from working with Obama on drug sentencing reform.

As long as people with Gowdy’s mentality dominate Republican primaries, dysfunctional extreme partisanship will play a major role. Candidly, it is almost always in the short-term interest of Democratic candidates for these extremists to win nominations. But it’s bad for the country, and realizing exactly who is responsible for the hyper-partisanship is a prerequisite for getting rid of it – by rejecting candidates who represent it at the polls.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

Twitter: @BarneyFrank

– Special to the Telegram