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THE COOK REPORT

Driving Into The Ditch

Fewer and fewer lawmakers remain in the middle of the road, where consensus and compromise form.

Perhaps the 115 members of the House Republican Study Committee should be embarrassed. They issue a statement one day, and it hardly gets noticed. The next day, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, says much the same thing, and suddenly his job is dangling by a thread. The statement, of course, was that oil company BP deserves an apology for President Obama's "shakedown" -- forcing the British energy giant to set up a $20 billion escrow account to pay for Americans' losses caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

Having escaped the wrath that Barton brought upon himself, the study committee's members probably aren't asking themselves, "Hey, what are we, chopped liver?" Many observers have noted that the Republican Study Committee consists of about two-thirds of all House Republicans -- basically, the most conservative ones. Putting aside the debate over the appropriateness of a BP escrow account, it's interesting to contemplate how such a large group of lawmakers came to sign off on a statement that obviously was extremely controversial, even incendiary -- not to mention, politically tone deaf.

 

To be sure, many members were not aware of the statement before it was released. In House and Senate offices, statements often go out even though the lawmaker has not actually read or specifically approved them. Staffers operate as the eyes, ears, hands, and, in some cases, brain of the member, acting on his or her behalf with authority to make decisions as if they were the member. Congressional aides are supposed to shield their bosses from making mistakes, from stepping on land mines.

The fact that neither study committee members nor their assistants sounded the alarm about the statement suggests a problem. Saying that BP was owed an apology clearly didn't seem like a politically dangerous statement to a bunch of people, and it should have.

What we have witnessed is just the latest manifestation -- this time, on the Republican side -- of what I call the Bimodal Distribution Congress. Democrats have certainly made similar faux pas. But no matter which side of the aisle commits a particular transgression, the bigger problem is that Washington has become so ideologically charged that something politically disastrous can creep up unnoticed.

 

The American people are largely centrists. They may be moderately conservative or liberal, but most are definitely between the 30-yard lines. Ideologically speaking, the electorate is not quite a classic bell curve. Rather, it's a bit elongated on the right side with somewhat larger numbers of voters describing themselves as conservative than as liberal, but their distribution still looks more like a bell curve than any other shape.

Congress, by contrast, has become what statisticians call bimodal in its distribution, like a camel with two humps. The ideological pattern of its members is almost the inverse of the American public's. What makes the situation on Capitol Hill even worse is that those congressional humps are getting farther apart. Fewer and fewer lawmakers remain in the middle of the road, where consensus and compromise form. The center of each party is perhaps on the 20-yard lines on the left and on the right, closer to the end zones than when Congress included considerable numbers of moderate-to-liberal Republicans and conservative-to-moderate Democrats. Anybody remember the "Gypsy Moth" Republicans or the "Boll Weevil" Democrats?

Conservative Democrats were the stabilizing force that kept their party from lurching into the ditch on the left, just as liberal Republicans kept their party from heading into the ditch on the right. Those moderating influences are gone, and the parties are now careering off the road.

Moderates are the first to be swept overboard in wave elections, when primaries become ideological litmus tests and when most swing districts and states fall to the surging party in the general election. The decline of moderates makes both parties' caucuses more homogeneous and thus contributes to the dysfunction of Congress and the collective out-of-touchness that we saw last week with the statements from Barton and the Republican Study Committee. Sadly, in too many congressional conversations, there's no one around anymore to warn, "This is a really stupid idea!"

 

This article appears in the June 26, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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