The diagnosis Representative Cooper provides for the current state of dysfunction in Washington, D.C. is an interesting one. And he proposes a provocative cure.
The symptom: declining political responsiveness and increased partisan strife, especially in Congress.
The cause: poor political mechanics.
The malady: deficits.
The cure: merit pay for representatives.
Parties and partisanship are ascendant in Washington, D.C. They assert themselves in ways that generate hard feelings among politicians and deep divisions among voters. Today approval ratings of both Congress as a whole and of individual members are low and continue to slide.
Cooper has put his finger on an essential dynamic driving the rancor in American politics. As parties grow stronger, there is less opportunity for members to legislate according to the nuances of their districts. Members feel compelled to vote much more strictly with their party than at any time since the 1940s. In this context it becomes easier for voters to cast a party ballot, but more difficult to find a legislator or idea that does not fit squarely in the ideological mold set by the parties.
Why has this state of affairs emerged over the past four decades?
Cooper focuses on two features of the mechanics of politics: money and redistricting. Both are certainly the bane of every politician. Raising money is not why legislators ran for office, and redistricting shuffles the political deck every decade in a way that raises the prospect of a premature departure from the House.
However, neither is, on its face, a compelling explanation for the present problems. Redistricting only affects the House of Representatives; it does not apply to the Senate or to the presidency. Yet Cooper’s argument reflects ills of the whole political system—it applies to the Senate and to presidents from Reagan to Obama.
Money is a more complicated issue, but judging by the rhetoric of old, the problem hasn’t really changed in 50 years. Cooper’s critique echoes Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 call for passage of what later became the Federal Election Campaign Act. And independent spending was the bogeyman of the 1970s and ’80s, when groups such as the National Conservative Political Action Committee and the National Rifle Association used independent spending to target liberal politicians. Incumbents have huge funding advantages now, but not much greater than the advantages enjoyed by incumbents in the 1970s and ’80s.
One might have also rounded up some of the other usual suspects: primaries, unions, corporations, lobbyists, voter ignorance, globalization, divided government, political polling, etc. These are the kids who hang out on the corner waiting for trouble. But they are hard to convict. They have always been there, though the problems have ebbed and flowed.
The differences now lie in the parties. And this conclusion leads to a deeper question: is this Congress’s problem? I suspect it isn’t, and the recent history of the parties and party reform reveals why.
Americans once yearned for disciplined parties, but the results are not what we expected.
The late David Broder famously lamented in his 1972 book The Party’s Over that the parties were too weak to exert any control on a Congress that put special and local interests before national interests. Americans loved their members of Congress but disliked Congress itself. Political scientist Morris Fiorina called this the curse of “individual responsiveness.” Legislators were exceptionally good at solving constituents’ problems and producing pork-barrel projects for their districts, but those actions came at the expense of the collective interests of the country. As a result Congress repeatedly created inefficient and broken legislation and a seemingly unstoppable deficit.
Strong political parties were seen as the solution to Congress’s apparent lack of interest in the collective good. Reformers called for greater discipline in Congress and vigorous party organizations, from the national level down to the precincts.
The reformers got their way thanks to the Federal Election Commission’s soft-money rules (instituted in 1979) and the rise of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the National Republican Campaign Committee, and other party funding outfits capable of leveraging campaign cash to bring about party discipline in Congress. Congressional reforms in 1974 weakened the authority of the speaker, but quickly gave rise to the call for a return to greater centralization of power. And it was the Democrats, especially Speaker Jim Wright, who led the way. Redistricting marginalized liberal Republicans in the North and conservative Democrats in the South, and the “big sort” into programmatically liberal Democrats and programmatically conservative Republicans was underway.
What gives me most pause about the recent history of Congress is that disciplined parties could not keep at bay the deeper problem Cooper identifies—deficits. The Clinton White House and the Republican-controlled Congress in the 1990s—which typified Cooper’s polarized Washington—managed to erase the deficit for the first time since the 1960s. But unified control of Congress and the presidency in the 2000s, first under the Republicans and then under the Democrats, has produced debt beyond anything experienced since World War II.
In the 2000s the United States finally achieved the strong, disciplined parties yearned for by an earlier generation. But the results were not as desired. Under the thumb of strong party leadership and discipline, Congress has produced deficits as large in real terms as the deficits produced in the era of individual responsiveness. Enacting collectively responsible public policy—that is, without deficits—only seemed possible with the gridlock and partisan sparring of the Gingrich- Clinton era.
Why couldn’t unified-party control ensure fiscal discipline? The reason, I conjecture, is the broken ideologies of the two parties. A policy that offers greater entitlements without generating new revenue or that drastically cuts taxes without cutting expenditures is undoubtedly irresponsible. Yet that is the comic-book version of the parties’ fiscal policies. Each ideology works poorly when dominant. But they work well in tension with one another, as in the 1990s—they are the yin and yang of policy.