Hours after lawmakers and President Obama brokered the debt-ceiling deal that pulled the United States back from the brink of a default that Congress relentlessly pushed it toward, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared, “Congress is not broken.” By those dim lights, Congress will remain functional as long as it doesn’t purposefully orchestrate the destruction of the U.S. economy.
Then again, the 112th Congress has nearly 17 months left to go.
History shows that intense political confrontations in Washington either result in periods of bipartisan cooperation or dissolve into long stretches of impasse. An example of the former was in 1996 and ’97 when Republicans opted to work with President Clinton, after a politically disastrous government shutdown for the GOP, to raise the minimum wage, enact welfare reform, and balance the budget.
Examples of the latter are more numerous and—in today’s atmosphere—perhaps more instructive: in 1937 and ’38, following the failure of President Roosevelt’s Supreme Court-packing scheme, when FDR faced rejuvenated opposition from a coalition of Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats; in 1975, after President Nixon resigned, when President Ford used his veto pen nearly 40 times and faced eight congressional overrides from a heavily Democratic Congress; and in the late 1990s, after Clinton’s impeachment trial, when his relationship with congressional Republicans soured and bipartisan output flatlined.
Congress ebbs and flows between cooperation and confrontation with the White House, and Democrats and Republicans in Congress veer between working with and working against each other. The debt-ceiling debate suggests that cooperation in Washington is ebbing. Here’s why.
Incentives. Republicans cut deals with Clinton in the wake of the shutdown battles of 1995 and ’96 to prove that they could govern. They were facing public pushback and poll numbers that gave the win to the president and the loss to House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The shutdown battle contributed to Clinton’s reelection in 1996, which had a chastening effect on how far Republicans could push the limits of their control.
By contrast, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell came out of the debt-ceiling debate feeling like winners—perhaps overoptimistically, given polls this week showing Congress’s approval ratings tanking. Republicans currently see no policy or political incentive to negotiating with the White House on the issue—deficits and spending—that will dominate the agenda the remainder of this year.
“Why work with this unpopular president? Why give him anything … when he becomes more unpopular by the month?” asked Julian Zelizer, a congressional authority at Princeton University, framing the Republicans’ political argument. Obama “has no leverage at this point unless his popularity skyrockets, which frankly is hard to see happening,” Zelizer said, “and he certainly can’t go into Republican districts and scare anyone.”
When lawmakers return in September, the focus will center on the newly created special joint committee’s task of finding at least $1.5 trillion in further deficit reduction by Thanksgiving or risk triggering automatic across-the-board spending cuts that target both defense and nondefense spending. Already, both parties’ leaders are laying the framework for gridlock. There will be “no legislation coming out of that committee unless revenues are a part of the mix,” Reid said. Each of the top four congressional leaders will appoint three members to the panel. But Boehner and McConnell have made it clear that neither will appoint a lawmaker who would support tax increases.
Leverage. Democrats have none. The White House has repeatedly gone up against this divided Congress and come away with the losing hand. Obama, despite golf outings and cordial relations, has been unable to get his arms around Congress or persuade the GOP’s congressional leaders to take risks with him. The president has been upfront about his willingness to strike bargains, particularly “grand” ones, on entitlements and taxes, but he has not found a willing partner in Boehner; the speaker was initially enticed by Obama’s offer to reach a deficit-reduction deal in the $4 trillion range that raised revenues and included entitlement reforms unpopular with Democrats, such as raising the Medicare eligibility age, but he later balked.
In the end, it was not Obama and Boehner but Vice President Joe Biden and McConnell who proved clutch in the final days. The final deal, however, left Democrats with little to claim in the way of victory, while Republicans secured at least $2.1 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years. Asked what Democrats got out of the ordeal, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said that the deal “is going to help stabilize the markets.” In other words, Democrats’ closest claim to a win was not defaulting (although Thursday’s stock-market plunge called even that claim into question).
Since the 2010 midterms, the debt-ceiling battle was the third in a series of high-stakes confrontations between the White House and Congress in which Obama arguably gave up more than he got. Last December, Senate Republicans successfully orchestrated a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts by threatening to allow all of the tax cuts to expire, not just those for the wealthiest of Americans. Unable to find a compromise and facing a hard deadline, Obama was forced to sign off on the extension, thus violating one of his cornerstone 2008 campaign pledges. And earlier this year, in the face of a looming government shutdown and despite polling data that suggested such a scenario would be bad for congressional Republicans, Obama agreed to billions in spending cuts.
Congressional Democrats’ faith in Obama is shaken. “There was caving this time; why wouldn’t you think there’d be caving next time?” asked Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., who voted against the debt-ceiling bill, when asked if he was confident that the administration would fight for revenue increases coming out of the super committee.
No Middle Ground. Congress once had blocs of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, which forced both parties to veer toward the center. No more. The last Congress, according to National Journal’s vote rankings, was the most polarized ever—one in which no Republican senator was more liberal than any Democrat and no Democratic senator was more conservative than any Republican. This Congress is following the same pattern.
In the House, the tea party-driven GOP majority is an unruly bloc that has left Boehner in a role more aptly described as a leader of a coalition party in a parliamentary system rather than a traditional speaker with a commandable majority. In the confrontations with the White House on the government shutdown and the debt ceiling, Boehner has needed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats to get the final product over the finish line. The fact that Republicans are reliant on Democrats even as they are unwilling to negotiate with them has fueled House Democrats’ exasperation with the White House.
Past and present lawmakers say that the two parties have never been more divided. Not only do they view the other party’s policies with suspicion, they also view the other side’s members with suspicion. “I think it’s different this time,” said former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., in an interview with National Journal. “They’re so polarized over what they think government should be doing, I don’t think it’s going to get easier; I think it’s going to stay hard.”
2012. Republicans are increasingly confident that Obama is beatable, despite a lackluster field of GOP contenders. His national disapproval ratings are hovering in the low 50s—52 percent, according to an August 1 CNN poll. His numbers are just as bad in critical swing states such as Pennsylvania (54 percent) and Florida (51 percent), according to two statewide Quinnipiac University polls out this week.
To that end, Republicans see their mission clearly: Do no harm, but do not help. Do not allow the government to shut down or the U.S. to default, but also do not let Obama claim any victories or do anything to help boost his stature with independent voters. In the meantime, keep the debate on fiscal policy, the GOP’s firmest playing ground.
McConnell has his own vested interest in 2012 beyond his stated mission of defeating Obama. He looks at a Senate landscape with nine races currently rated as competitive, with seven of those held by Democrats, and he can quickly do the math that lands him his brass ring: Senate majority leader in the 113th Congress. Facing headwinds going into the next election cycle, Democrats can lose a maximum of three seats, assuming that Obama wins reelection, to give a 50-50 Senate Democratic control.
Boehner’s 24-seat majority does not appear threatened at this stage, and yet the August 1 CNN poll gave Congress a stunning 14 percent approval/84 percent disapproval rating, the lowest ever registered in surveys taken by CNN, Gallup, and USA Today since they started asking the question in 1974. Despite the public’s hostile attitude, Republicans are betting that 2012 isn’t going to be about them. “I think there’s a sense with Boehner and McConnell they can survive it, because the next election is not going to be focused on them; it’s on Obama,” Selizer said. “They have really helped redefine the party, what the GOP is about, and I think they found the deficit and spending as the issues that this party is going to be about. Not only do a lot of them believe this firmly as a matter of policy but also as a matter crucial to the future of the Republic.”
Lott predicted that progress, if it occurs, would come only after the sorting effect of the next election. “I think we are going to have to wait till the 2012 election. It could continue then, depending on the makeup of the House, the Senate, and the White House. But I think everyone’s already turned to 2012. It’s about the campaign, and it’s going to be awfully hard to get agreement on anything.”
The Reality. Just look at what happened after the great debt-ceiling compromise: Congress failed to reauthorize legislation governing the Federal Aviation Administration before heading home for its August recess. Lawmakers dashed to Washington’s airports early this week, ignoring the plaintive cry of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican and a former House colleague: “Do not go on your vacations until this issue is settled.”
As lawmakers made their way out of town, their parting message was that as soon as they return in September, job creation would be their top priority. But the FAA dispute undermined that pledge because the partial shutdown furloughed 4,000 employees, idled 200 airport-construction projects nationwide, and threatened hundreds of thousands of jobs directly linked to those projects and those in support services. It wasn’t until late Thursday afternoon, after three days of unrelenting bad press about Congress’s inability to act, that Reid announced a deal had been reached to end the impasse.
To review: Right after Congress said it wasn’t broken, its inaction threatened to cost the federal government $1 billion a month in lost revenue and hundreds of thousands of jobs. Results such as this test the old adage: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Scott Bland contributed
This article appears in the August 6, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.