The U.S. Senate's 'Gang' Problem

Calling a bipartisan group of compromising senators a "gang"? How creative!

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The cliché When a bipartisan group of senators revived this week with a plan to save the United States from default (and thus, the world from implosion) it put the phrase "Gang of Six" back into heavy rotation. Indeed, in the last few years, terming a bipartisan group of compromising senators a "gang" has become such a predictable reflex that David Fahrenthold at The Washington Post concluded in May that "The U.S. Senate has a gang problem."

Where it's from In the past few years, bipartisan senate gangs of 6, 10, and 20 have united to solve legislative stand-offs. The idea seems to have originated in 2005, when the "Gang of 14" joined forces to avoid a Democratic filibuster of federal judge nominees. It is hard to track down just who in the media first referred to the group as the "gang," but within a few days of their proposed solution, the name was used in nearly every report on the compromise and taken up by senators both in and out of the gang. Norm Ornstein, a longtime observer of Congress at the American Enterprise Institute, says the name "almost certainly" made reference to the "Gang of Four," a committee of Chinese Communist leaders who directed the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s alongside Mao Zedong.

Why it is catching on One then naturally wonders why a group of bipartisan senators seeking to solve problems would associate themselves with a dogmatic one party committee whose Cultural Revolution resulted in deaths of millions of Chinese. Well, politicians of all stripes like having power. And the power that the Gang of Four wielded in the '60s and '70s was pretty absolute. After the success of the original Gang of 14 in coming together to avoid deadlock, references to Senate "gangs" seems to have overshadowed the original, likely pejorative, meaning. When the media dubs a group a "gang," they almost certainly are not referring back to the "Gang of Four" any longer. Fahrenthold shows how the media and the Senate have altered the implications of calling someone a member of a "gang." "Political scientists... say that serving in a gang looks good, even if the gang goes nowhere: it makes a senator appear to float above the unpopular clatter of partisan bickering."

Why else? Fahrenthold also points out the long history of a mavericky U.S. Senate:

Gangs like this one are a product of the Senate’s independent ethos. The House functions like two choirs: party leaders pick the music, and their members generally line up and sing. The Senate, on the other hand, acts more like 100 soloists, each feeling free to make his own alliances.

A “gang” is usually an alliance focused on a specific issue, which forms outside the Senate’s party structures. The media nickname for these groups is new...But the idea is an old one. In 1860, for instance, a bipartisan “Committee of 13” senators set out to find a compromise that would stave off the Civil War.

On the other hand, subsequent gangs have often failed to solve problems. The Gang of 12 did not reform immigration laws, the Gang of 10 did not resolve energy policy, and a previous Gang of Six did not find a bipartisan resolution to the health care debate. And today, reports show that a debt ceiling Gang of Six may be no match for one particularly noisy part of House of Representatives choir.

So if the cliché doesn't harbinger success, may we suggest that the Senate liven up their nickname apparatus a bit in the interest of creativity and staving off economic disaster? We'll start: "Senate's 'Flock of Eagles' Nails Down Compromise, Saves World." Has a nice ring to it, right?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.