The Exodus of Problem Solvers on Capitol Hill

Recent retirements mean the number of lawmakers willing to cooperate to get things done is dwindling fast.

The US Capitol Building is pictured at dusk in Washington, DC, on July 29, 2011.
National Journal
Norm Ornstein
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Norm Ornstein
Feb. 26, 2014, 4:57 p.m.

I provided my take on the re­tire­ment of John Din­gell for The At­lantic on Monday. But a lar­ger point I made in that piece de­serves some ad­di­tion­al re­flec­tion. The over­all num­ber of re­tire­ments from the 113th Con­gress so far is av­er­age or a bit be­low av­er­age, al­though, of course, the re­tire­ments are get­ting more at­ten­tion than usu­al be­cause of the re­mark­able ca­reers of George Miller, Henry Wax­man, Carl Lev­in, and Din­gell.

But most, if not all, of the re­tir­ees share a com­mon char­ac­ter­ist­ic — Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans alike. They rep­res­ent a heav­ily dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of those who would fit com­fort­ably in a Prob­lem-Solv­ing Caucus if one ex­is­ted. Prob­lem-solv­ing has not been any­where on the pri­or­ity list of the 112th or 113th Con­gresses, es­pe­cially but not ex­clus­ively in the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives. And in the 111th Con­gress, Re­pub­lic­ans united as a par­lia­ment­ary minor­ity, vot­ing no on every ma­jor ini­ti­at­ive and most minor ones. As Jerry Lewis said to Dave Obey about the eco­nom­ic stim­u­lus, they fol­lowed or­ders from on high and did not co­oper­ate or com­prom­ise.

There have been a few key votes re­cently demon­strat­ing con­cern for prob­lem-solv­ing, in­clud­ing the Ry­an-Mur­ray spend­ing com­prom­ise, the vote to end the shut­down, maybe the fi­nal vote on the farm bill after three-plus years of ex­acer­bat­ing the prob­lem in­stead of solv­ing it.

But mostly, we know the prob­lem solv­ers not by re­cent votes but by their past re­cords and their ori­ent­a­tion. So I would in­clude in this group Spen­cer Bachus, Jim Ger­lach, Jon Run­yan, Frank Wolf, Jo Bon­ner, and the now re­tired Jo Ann Emer­son, among the House Re­pub­lic­ans, along with a spe­cial nod to Sen. Saxby Cham­b­liss, who put him­self on the line by join­ing and par­ti­cip­at­ing in the Gang of Six, try­ing to find a bi­par­tis­an route to debt re­duc­tion against the stiff op­pos­i­tion of his own party lead­ers and most of the GOP Sen­ate Con­fer­ence.

If these GOP­ers went along with all the votes to re­peal Obama­care, and if many sup­por­ted con­front­a­tions on the debt lim­it and even voted in dif­fer­ent ways and at dif­fer­ent times to shut down the gov­ern­ment be­fore they voted to re­open it, what char­ac­ter­izes them, I be­lieve, is that they were not very com­fort­able in those stances. And they were not all that in­ter­ested in fend­ing off the rad­ic­al, no-com­prom­ise forces in their party day after day after day. There are many reas­ons people make the very per­son­al de­cision to hang it up, but that dis­com­fort has to be high on the col­lect­ive list.

At the same time, Demo­crats like Wax­man, Miller, Din­gell and Rush Holt, among oth­ers, also have their own reas­ons for leav­ing. But the sen­ti­ment Din­gell ex­pressed the oth­er day — com­ing from the longest-serving mem­ber of Con­gress in his­tory, and one whose love for the House is un­sur­passed — that Con­gress is now ob­nox­ious and has lost its iden­tity is more widely shared. If your cent­ral pur­pose in serving is to solve prob­lems for your con­stitu­ents and the coun­try as a whole, the dy­nam­ic of the past sev­er­al years is un­re­lent­ingly frus­trat­ing. Now add in the fun­drais­ing crazi­ness, with its con­stant pres­sures and the in­her­ent cor­rup­tion of the pro­cess (soon to likely be made worse with the next reck­less Su­preme Court de­cision).

The shrink­age in the ranks of prob­lem solv­ers is a symp­tom, not a cause, of the em­bar­rass­ing product of the 113th Con­gress, and the like­li­hood is that the re­mainder of the year will be even less pro­duct­ive than what we have seen so far. The com­bin­a­tion of the per­man­ent cam­paign and the rampant tri­bal­ism makes ac­tion or com­prom­ise nearly im­possible. House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor early in the year sched­uled a pi­ti­fully small num­ber of days in ses­sion be­fore the Novem­ber elec­tions, now amount­ing to about 80, and many of those will be pro forma or ab­bre­vi­ated ses­sions. The early strategy, re­flec­ted in the ma­jor­ity lead­er’s memo to his troops, was to keep the fo­cus on the fail­ures of Obama­care and avoid dis­trac­tions that would come with ac­tu­ally push­ing to en­act laws — which, after all, could be signed by the pres­id­ent and presen­ted as evid­ence that things were work­ing.

So bills will pass the House, no doubt in­clud­ing more at­tempts to evis­cer­ate Obama­care, but very few will pass with an eye to­ward reach­ing a com­prom­ise in a House-Sen­ate con­fer­ence and get­ting to one of those sign­ing ce­re­mon­ies. As for the big is­sues, es­pe­cially im­mig­ra­tion and tax re­form, which are mani­festly in the Re­pub­lic­ans’ in­terest, there is an ad­di­tion­al im­ped­i­ment: Ac­tion on those would di­vide the GOP caucus at a time when the lead­ers are try­ing to unite their mem­bers.

Sen­ate Demo­crats are more will­ing to seek some com­mon ground on areas like in­fra­struc­ture. But they have no great ap­pet­ite oth­er­wise to pass things that might lead to policy com­prom­ises, es­pe­cially on the big is­sue of budget sta­bil­ity and long-term debt re­duc­tion, even if they were coupled with short-term stim­u­lus.

Demo­crats are es­pe­cially eager to pound Re­pub­lic­ans on the min­im­um wage, an is­sue where sub­stan­tial ma­jor­it­ies of Demo­crats, in­de­pend­ents, and — yes — Re­pub­lic­ans sup­port an in­crease. Demo­crats want to brand Re­pub­lic­ans as heart­less and feck­less for re­fus­ing to ex­tend un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits for the long-term un­em­ployed, a stance that is ham­per­ing eco­nom­ic growth be­cause those dol­lars get in­jec­ted dir­ectly back in­to the eco­nomy.

It is pos­sible that we will see ac­tion on both of these items if the polit­ic­al pain for fail­ing to act be­comes too great. But if we couple these items with the broad­er set of in­ter­re­lated is­sues — long-term un­em­ploy­ment, stag­nant wages, job train­ing, in­come gaps — there is ac­tu­ally im­mense prom­ise for bi­par­tis­an ac­tion built on com­mon ground and com­prom­ise, much of it led by my col­leagues at the Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute. As I have writ­ten be­fore, ideas like ap­pren­tice­ship pro­grams, re­lo­ca­tion as­sist­ance, job-shar­ing in­cent­ives, in­creases in the Earned In­come Tax Cred­it, and pos­sibly sub­sidies for em­ploy­ers to hire lower-in­come work­ers could eas­ily be blen­ded with a slightly smal­ler in­crease in the min­im­um wage to find a sweet spot in this crit­ic­al area. That com­bin­a­tion would lift the 113th out of the ig­no­miny of win­ning the “Do-Nothingest” re­cord. Sadly, it is not likely to hap­pen as we soon segue through primary sea­son and in­to the high-stakes midterm cam­paign.

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