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).
This article appears in the August 6, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.