This article is part of Fixing Congress, a forum on the causes of legislative partisanship and corruption.
Norman J. Ornstein
I have been in Washington, D.C. since 1969, longer than even Representative Cooper, and I have never seen it more dysfunctional. The problems, as Cooper notes, start with partisan divisions. The National Journal vote ratings for the 111th Congress showed that the parties have virtually no ideological overlap: the most conservative Democratic senator was to the left of the most liberal Republican; only nine House Democrats were to the right of the most liberal House Republican. In both the Senate and House, the center of gravity is nowhere near the center of the political spectrum.
The change from previous decades is dramatic. In the ’70s and ’80s, there was a huge center, with a substantial share of both parties hewing closely to it. Conservative Democrats, mostly Southern (we called them Boll Weevils before they became Blue Dogs), made up around 40 percent of the party in Congress, while liberal and moderate Republicans (called Gypsy Moths,) mainly from New England and the West Coast, made up a quarter or so of their party.
A regional realignment that began in the late 1960s triggered the polarization that eventually became the standard in the ’90s. The South gradually became the core of the Republican Party, while New England and the West Coast became reliably blue. Over time the Democrats became more homogeneous and moved left; Republicans became more homogeneous and moved right. Democrats still have a smattering of ideological heterogeneity via the Blue Dogs (including Cooper), while Republicans have barely a trace element of moderates, and no liberals, left in Congress. The movement left and right has also been affected, as Cooper notes, by redistricting over the past two cycles, which has created many more safe and homogeneous districts and echo chambers to reinforce lawmakers’ views.
The ideological shifts inside Congress have been exacerbated by another broad phenomenon—the increasing dominance of the permanent campaign. When I arrived in Washington, D.C. there were two distinct seasons—a campaign one, and a governing one. Campaigns understandably used the metaphors of war. Governing, on the other hand, is an additive process, often requiring broad coalitions to craft significant public policy and to sell it to a public worried about short-term change. Norms reinforced this mindset: lawmakers would never campaign directly against their colleagues from other districts or states, especially not on those colleagues’ turf. Campaign consultants and pollsters used to disappear after elections, but now they stick around as consultants, aids, and lobbyists, ever-present.
Throw in one more factor: the increasing competitiveness of both chambers. In the House, Democrats had a stranglehold for 40 consecutive years during which Republicans never held more than 192 seats. Since 1994 control of the House has been intensely competitive. Every election now provides a plausible scenario for a power shift, and sharp ideological differences between the parties make the stakes immeasurably higher.
Two outcomes follow. First, lawmakers from the other side of the aisle become almost radioactive. Working with them may give their side protection against attack on a wedge issue, which in turn could mean a gain in seats. Second, all members face mounting pressure to raise money as part of the team effort. Members spend all their spare time raising money. Any chance for serious debate or deliberation is brushed aside by the crushing imperative to raise funds.
Ban fundraising in Washington, D.C. when Congress is in session.
Newt Gingrich’s formula, as Cooper rightly notes, ensures that lawmakers do not get to know each other, making demonization much easier. The friction that comes with constant partisan warfare and ideological division has alienated voters, who increasingly support any candidate who claims not to be “like those politicians.” The result is more ideologues and charlatans and fewer institutionalists who know the value of compromise and the importance of order in the legislative process.
What to do? Cooper is right that changing the campaign-finance system and reforming redistricting would help immensely. But both will be difficult, and we are years away from any real movement in these areas.
Unfortunately, Cooper’s proposals for merit-based pay and fundraising constrained to the legislator’s district or state are unworkable. Congressional performance can only be measured collectively, and the result would be collective punishment. Merit pay would also be one more disincentive for non-millionaires considering a run for office. Geographical fundraising limits would handicap non-wealthy candidates from poorer districts or sparsely populated states, especially in the post–Citizens United world.
I have a few alternative suggestions. Change the congressional schedule to three weeks on, one week off. Each month Congress would be in session for three weeks, from 9 a.m. Monday through 5 p.m. Friday. This would create opportunity for debate and deliberation, and provide a powerful incentive for members to move their families to Washington, D.C. Couple the schedule change with a generous housing allowance, and build two large apartment buildings near the Capitol. Rent the apartments (including several with three or four bedrooms) at cost to lawmakers, and include both childcare facilities and a common eating space to make them family friendly and to encourage socializing. Ban fundraising in Washington, D.C. when Congress is in session.
Externally, adopt on a wider basis the California system of open primaries to provide opportunities for a wider range of moderate candidates to win nominations and elections. Even better, adopt a version of the Australian system of mandatory attendance at the polls. In Australia failure to show up (and at least cast a ballot for “none of the above”) results in a fine of $15–20. With this modest nudge, turnout hovers around 97 percent. If American parties knew that their bases would turn out in equal force, then current priorities—spending hundreds of millions to excite or frighten voters with harsh rhetoric and wedge issues—would evaporate. Candidates would focus on voters in the middle, and the issues that concern them—such as debt and deficits.
I have few illusions about the likelihood of such reforms. And even if enacted, their effectiveness would be limited by the larger, combative culture—reinforced by cable news, talk radio, and blogs. All of which leaves me simply with the hope that lawmakers like Jim Cooper stay in Congress, at least providing role models for their colleagues, and showing voters that reasonable, thoughtful, deliberative legislators actually do exist.
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Norman J. Ornstein is Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get It Back On Track.