The structural forces that have transformed Congress into a more polarized and parliamentary institution are so entrenched that even the sorrowful insight in retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe’s parting lament last week won’t do much to change them.
But in a series of statements, the moderate Republican from Maine accurately diagnosed both the causes and consequences of Washington’s hardening hyper-partisanship. She also correctly forecasted that, under current trends, the situation is not likely to improve. Absent a change in perspective, this fall’s election could compound the problem.
Snowe’s core complaint was that the level of partisan division in Congress has virtually ruled out reasonable compromise that reflects the nation’s diversity of views. Citing our own analysis at National Journal, she wrote in The Washington Post, “Congress is becoming more like a parliamentary system—where everyone simply votes with their party and those in charge employ every possible tactic to block the other side.”
Snowe isn’t exaggerating. Congress is as sharply divided as at any point in modern times. In 1982, when NJ first published its vote ratings arraying all members on a liberal-to-conservative scale, 58 senators compiled voting records that fell between those of the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat. Those senators represented a pool of flexible pieces available to construct fluid bipartisan compromises.
In this year’s vote ratings, for the second consecutive year, the number of senators in that persuadable middle dwindled to zero: Every Senate Republican compiled a voting record more conservative than any Senate Democrat, and every Senate Democrat compiled a voting record more liberal than any Senate Republican. Overlap virtually disappeared in the House, too.
Viewed through a longer lens, the picture is even more vivid. Political scientist Keith Poole of the University of Georgia and his collaborators have analyzed voting patterns in every Congress since the founding. They recently calculated that in 2011, the ideological gap between the voting records of the average Democrat and Republican in both the House and the Senate was the widest since 1879. Other indices used to measure polarization show partisan chasms unmatched for a century. “We are clearly as conflicted as we’ve been since 1905,” Poole says. “The parties are, I think, completely dysfunctional and incapable of acting on major policy.”
Many factors have propelled Congress in this direction. Among them are the fall of seniority in determining committee chairmanships, which provides the leadership more leverage to demand loyalty from members; the growing willingness of liberal and conservative interest groups to mount primary challenges against legislators viewed as disloyal; the rise of overtly partisan media on both left and right; and, above all, a generation-long resorting of voters that has left each party’s coalition (but especially the GOP’s) much more ideologically homogenous than in the past.
From these diverse causes, the singular effect has been to reshape the job of members of Congress, especially senators. The great legislators that history celebrates—from Henry Clay to Bob Dole—are remembered because, through their skill and diligence, they built majority coalitions that would not have existed without them. No one can do that now; senators are simply expected to vote with their side, and they’re punished when they don’t. The name on the back of the jersey matters less than the color on the front. As Snowe accurately noted, that makes it almost impossible for “elected officials to look past their differences and find common ground.”
Yet, today, there is no other way to consistently make progress on big problems. The reason is that America is not only deeply, but also closely, divided. In the Geneva-less rules of modern political warfare, each party now routinely uses the Senate filibuster to block the other, which means that it usually takes 60 votes to pass important legislation. But because the country is so closely split, one party rarely controls so many seats; before Democrats did it in 2009, neither side had held that many Senate seats since 1977.
The safest prediction about November’s election is that it will leave Washington balanced even more precariously than it is today—with the winning party likely holding smaller majorities in the House and Senate, and the presidency decided by a narrower margin than in 2008. In that environment, pursuing an uncompromising agenda could produce stalemate or intense polarization if one side controls both branches of government and uses the special reconciliation process to squeeze through big change with just 51 Senate votes.
With the capital likely to be narrowly divided, durable progress can come in 2013 only if each party accommodates the other. That idea appears anathema to the GOP presidential candidates, who are offering deeply ideological agendas that assume they will win a landslide mandate. But the first step toward reversing the Washington dysfunction that Snowe so powerfully decried is for each side to acknowledge that voters are unlikely to present them such a decisive victory this fall—and to begin contemplating the compromises required to unify what is once again a nearly 50-50 nation.
This article appears in the March 10, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.