Can This Congress Be Saved?

National Journal’s annual vote ratings show a Congress as paralyzed and polarized as ever. But better days may lie ahead.

President Barack Obama is applauded as he gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
National Journal
Add to Briefcase
Alex Roarty
Feb. 21, 2013, 2 a.m.

Much of Amer­ica prays Dan Boren is wrong. Par­ents wor­ried about the threat of gun vi­ol­ence cer­tainly hope he is. So do the roughly 11 mil­lion people who im­mig­rated to Amer­ica il­leg­ally and the de­fi­cit hawks who de­mand a grand budget bar­gain.

These men and wo­men are de­pend­ing on Wash­ing­ton, Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats, to come to­geth­er and reach an agree­ment on the na­tion­al agenda: gun vi­ol­ence, im­mig­ra­tion, and the budget. But Boren, a re­tired House mem­ber from Ok­lahoma, doubts they’ll end up sat­is­fied. It’s why he left Cap­it­ol Hill last year.

“I just thought I could bet­ter spend my time,” said the 39-year-old Boren, who is now do­ing work for the Chick­as­aw Na­tion. “I didn’t see in the near term any chance for sig­ni­fic­ant bi­par­tis­an le­gis­la­tion. If you’re go­ing to sac­ri­fice to be a pub­lic ser­vant, you want to have some tan­gible res­ults that you’re in­volved in; but if it’s just to have a title, I wasn’t in­ter­ested in that.”

The four-term rep­res­ent­at­ive had a bet­ter view than most of the dif­fi­culty of find­ing middle ground in Wash­ing­ton. This past year, ac­cord­ing to Na­tion­al Journ­al’s 2012 con­gres­sion­al vote rat­ings, the cent­rist Demo­crat was the most con­ser­vat­ive mem­ber of his con­fer­ence. He rated even more con­ser­vat­ive than a hand­ful of Re­pub­lic­ans­ — one of the few mem­bers of either party to cross ideo­lo­gic­al lines. “I’m a hope­ful per­son. I’m not bit­ter. I think that Amer­ica’s best days are yet to come,” Boren said. “But I can say that the reas­on I had left was be­cause I didn’t see it get­ting much bet­ter.”

The former law­maker might be right: Pre­dic­tions of con­tin­ued po­lar­iz­a­tion have been a safe bet in Wash­ing­ton for more than a dec­ade. Such a wager would have been dead on for 2012. NJ’s an­nu­al vote rat­ings found that his­tor­ic par­tis­an­ship once again gripped Con­gress. For the third year in a row, no Re­pub­lic­an mem­ber of the Sen­ate had a more lib­er­al vot­ing re­cord than any Demo­crat — just as no Demo­crat­ic sen­at­or had a more con­ser­vat­ive re­cord than any Re­pub­lic­an. What was once a mile­stone in the on­go­ing march of polit­ic­al po­lar­iz­a­tion — the ab­sence of ideo­lo­gic­al cros­sov­ers in Na­tion­al Journ­al’s rank­ings happened for only the second time ever in 2010 — is now nearly as un­re­mark­able in the Sen­ate as nam­ing a post of­fice.

The House was barely more het­ero­gen­eous. Only 10 Demo­crats re­gistered a more con­ser­vat­ive score than the most lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­an; only five Re­pub­lic­ans were more lib­er­al than the most con­ser­vat­ive House Demo­crat, Boren. Rep. Chris Gib­son of New York was the most lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­an.

Re­cent events on the Hill have only furthered the view that both sides are as dis­in­ter­ested in work­ing to­geth­er as ever. After a mo­ment­ary blip of co­oper­a­tion — the deal to avert the fisc­al cliff — the in­sti­tu­tion has back­slid in­to old, fa­mil­i­ar ways. The on­go­ing stan­doff over the March 1 se­quester has closely re­sembled the le­gis­lat­ive grid­lock of last year, and the Sen­ate’s fili­buster of De­fense Sec­ret­ary nom­in­ee Chuck Hagel — whose po­s­i­tion once rose above polit­ic­al squabbles be­cause of its im­port­ance to na­tion­al se­cur­ity — was yet an­oth­er mile­stone for line-in-the-sand par­tis­an­ship.

Nev­er­the­less, this is a new con­gres­sion­al ses­sion, and Boren’s pess­im­ism might pos­sibly be proved wrong. For the first time in a dec­ade, if not longer, con­di­tions are aligned for bi­par­tis­an deal-mak­ing, rais­ing hopes that Con­gress might ac­tu­ally do something and sat­is­fy the wishes of mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans hungry for ac­tion. “I am pleased with the signs I see in Con­gress today to try to make deals,” said Lee Hamilton, who was a vet­er­an Demo­crat­ic House mem­ber from In­di­ana. “There are threads of it — it’s not a fab­ric yet — but there are threads, and that’s en­cour­aging.”

In today’s con­text, de­fin­ing suc­cess is im­port­ant — and re­quires a healthy dose of both skep­ti­cism and prag­mat­ism. There’s little hope that this Con­gress can re­verse the gradu­al, dec­ades-long in­crease in po­lar­iz­a­tion — ex­acer­bated by, among oth­er things, power­ful spe­cial in­terests and par­tis­an me­dia — that has gripped Wash­ing­ton. The forces that drove Rep. Boren out of Con­gress re­main po­tent, and the le­gis­lat­ive at­mo­sphere on Cap­it­ol Hill is still tox­ic.

In­stead of a long-term course cor­rec­tion, the ques­tion is wheth­er Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers in the House, Pres­id­ent Obama, and Sen­ate Demo­crats can fa­cil­it­ate a re­prieve — if only to show the pub­lic that the in­sti­tu­tion is still func­tion­al. Cut­ting a deal with the broad back­ing of both parties isn’t a ques­tion so much of re­liev­ing those pres­sures as of learn­ing to pass laws in spite of them.

The makeup of the 113th Con­gress and the oc­cu­pant of the White House make con­di­tions riper for bi­par­tis­an le­gis­la­tion than at any time since Pres­id­ent George W. Bush’s first years in of­fice. Since then, Wash­ing­ton has been in the grip of one of two dy­nam­ics: Either one party has held Con­gress and the pres­id­ency, or one party, pos­sess­ing lim­ited power, has had little in­terest in passing con­sequen­tial le­gis­la­tion.

The lat­ter was the case last ses­sion, when Re­pub­lic­ans con­trolled only the House. In most cases, they used this cham­ber to ap­prove le­gis­la­tion, such as Rep. Paul Ry­an’s eponym­ous budget, that helped define the party’s agenda but had no chance of gain­ing ap­prov­al in the Sen­ate (much less with­stand­ing a veto from the White House). They were try­ing to wait out a pres­id­ent whom they be­lieved would be sent pack­ing in 2013.

Demo­crats were in a sim­il­ar po­s­i­tion from 2007 to 2009, when they con­trolled Con­gress but wanted to wait out Bush’s ten­ure. The lack of bi­par­tis­an­ship, of course, didn’t pre­vent ma­jor le­gis­la­tion from be­com­ing law over the past 10 years. But when Demo­crats con­trolled Wash­ing­ton and passed the Af­ford­able Care Act in 2010, or sim­il­arly em­powered Re­pub­lic­ans ap­proved Medi­care Part D in 2003, they didn’t need the back­ing of the oth­er party — and by and large didn’t get it.

This ses­sion is dif­fer­ent. Neither party has uni­lat­er­al con­trol, and yet there is an ap­pet­ite, in the first year of Obama’s second term, to make a ser­i­ous at­tempt to le­gis­late. The last time Cap­it­ol Hill saw something sim­il­ar came in 2001 and 2002. Re­pub­lic­ans sud­denly lost the Sen­ate when Sen. Jim Jef­fords of Ver­mont de­fec­ted from the GOP in the early sum­mer, but Con­gress still over­whelm­ingly ap­proved the No Child Left Be­hind Act months later (al­though the first round of Bush’s tax cuts passed with only a dozen or so Demo­crats on board in each cham­ber). Later, the parties worked to­geth­er to ap­prove a slew of na­tion­al se­cur­ity is­sues after the Sept. 11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

But draw­ing com­par­is­ons to that peri­od is dif­fi­cult be­cause of 9/11; and, be­sides, most of Bush’s term is hardly as­so­ci­ated with bi­par­tis­an comity. The bet­ter par­al­lel — and the ex­per­i­ence cur­rent op­tim­ists point to — is 1996 and 1997, which bridges the end of Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s first term and the be­gin­ning of his second. That two-year span saw agree­ments on a series of im­port­ant is­sues, ran­ging from two big-tick­et items (wel­fare re­form and a bal­anced-budget agree­ment) to less­er-known achieve­ments (such as rais­ing the min­im­um wage).

The sim­il­ar­ity between that peri­od and now ex­tends bey­ond the split con­trol of gov­ern­ment. Only a year earli­er, Re­pub­lic­ans had rid­den the “re­volu­tion” of 1994 in­to con­trol of Con­gress, when they prom­ised to push their agenda wheth­er Clin­ton ap­proved or not. But the party ul­ti­mately dealt with polit­ic­al set­backs, none more dam­aging than the gov­ern­ment shut­down of 1996. The pub­lic blamed Re­pub­lic­ans, and af­ter­ward Clin­ton nev­er again trailed GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee Bob Dole (who was Sen­ate ma­jor­ity lead­er at the time of the shut­down) in a head-to-head match­up, ac­cord­ing to preelec­tion polls.

Pub­lic opin­ion might once again be pulling against Re­pub­lic­ans, burnt as they were by Obama’s reelec­tion and their un­ex­pec­ted losses in the Sen­ate. In a Janu­ary poll by The Wall Street Journ­al and NBC News, 49 per­cent of adults dis­ap­proved of the GOP — and only 26 per­cent ap­proved. It was the worst rat­ing for Re­pub­lic­ans since 2008. Just as the Re­pub­lic­ans in Clin­ton’s time de­cided their polit­ic­al sur­viv­al de­pended on com­ing to the table, the GOP of today might do the same. “Re­pub­lic­ans over­played the gov­ern­ment shut­down, and Pres­id­ent Clin­ton won that battle,” said Dan Glick­man, a former House mem­ber who was Clin­ton’s Ag­ri­cul­ture sec­ret­ary. “And, with that, he ef­fect­ively used the bully pul­pit to con­trol the agenda. He gave a lot of cov­er for people to vote for him. It’s not the only factor, but mem­bers of Con­gress are much [more] likely to sup­port a pres­id­ent when the people at home are in­clined to sup­port the pres­id­ent.”

How much Obama’s broad pop­ular­ity mat­ters to most GOP House mem­bers is de­bat­able. With many of the pres­id­ent’s sup­port­ers packed in­to heav­ily Demo­crat­ic urb­an dis­tricts, most Re­pub­lic­ans rep­res­ent safely red dis­tricts. (In Novem­ber, Mitt Rom­ney won 227 con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts, a ma­jor­ity, des­pite los­ing by 4 per­cent­age points in the na­tion­al vote.)

But Obama’s stand­ing could weigh more heav­ily on House Speak­er John Boehner and Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor than on their fol­low­ers; Can­tor has re­cently at­temp­ted to rebrand the party with a softer im­age. While their charges’ in­terests are more pa­ro­chi­al, they have the na­tion­al party’s im­age to worry about. Pop­u­lar opin­ion could prod the two lead­ers to reach agree­ments with Obama, es­pe­cially on emo­tion­al is­sues such as gun con­trol and im­mig­ra­tion. Or, at the very least, pub­lic pres­sure could work to ease the dis­agree­ments that make even ba­sic gov­ern­ment ac­tion dif­fi­cult — a factor that might have been at work when House Re­pub­lic­ans en­gin­eered a three-month delay of the debt ceil­ing. “They’re hear­ing the mes­sage out­side the Belt­way that “˜we elec­ted you people to make things work,’ “ said John Br­eaux, the former long­time Demo­crat­ic sen­at­or from Louisi­ana.

The onus falls par­tic­u­larly hard on Boeh-ner, whose struggles to con­trol his con­fer­ence are well doc­u­mented. More than any oth­er play­er in Wash­ing­ton, he will de­term­ine wheth­er any­thing gets done this year. How he de­cides to pro­ceed could rest on how fre­quently he’s will­ing to leave con­ser­vat­ive col­leagues out in the cold and, con­sequently, how far he’s will­ing to risk his speak­er­ship.

The good of the party, and not his seat of power, pro­pelled Boehner’s de­cision to bring the su­per­storm Sandy re­lief bill to a vote earli­er this year, when it passed with just a minor­ity of sup­port from Re­pub­lic­ans. That com­bin­a­tion — Demo­crats and the mod­er­ate wing of the House GOP — is the path­way to en­act­ing a sweep­ing set of bi­par­tis­an agree­ments.

A week after the storm vote, a large bi­par­tis­an ma­jor­ity passed a three-month ex­ten­sion of the debt ceil­ing. “It is hard to see this Con­gress be­ing viewed as a bi­par­tis­an one, but we have seen a glim­mer of light on the re­cent bi­par­tis­an vote to ex­tend the debt ceil­ing,” said Ron Bon­jean, a one­time aide to the Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship.

Main­tain­ing that mo­mentum in the House won’t be easy, and it could re­quire Obama’s per­son­al lead­er­ship. Get­ting Boehner to take such a per­il­ous route could de­pend in large part on suc­cess­ful ca­jol­ing from the pres­id­ent. And on this sub­ject — the re­la­tion­ships among Wash­ing­ton’s top lead­ers — dis­cus­sion of a deal be­ing cut be­comes sharply pess­im­ist­ic.

The two men’s re­la­tion­ship is de­scribed as per­son­ally friendly, but pro­fes­sion­ally it has pro­duced noth­ing but dys­func­tion. What began with the debt-lim­it ne­go­ti­ations of 2011 cul­min­ated in last year’s failed fisc­al-cliff talks. Boehner has vowed nev­er to ne­go­ti­ate with Obama one-on-one again.

Wash­ing­ton has had a lit­any of suc­cess­ful speak­er-pres­id­ent re­la­tion­ships through the years. Think Newt Gin­grich and Bill Clin­ton — or Ron­ald Re­agan and Tip O’Neill in the 1980s. But Obama and Boehner haven’t been able to find a work­able for­mula. “There is zero trust between Boehner and the pres­id­ent, and trust is what’s ne­ces­sary to get deals done,” said Mike Hack­er, a former Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship aide. “It’s not just mu­tu­al in­terest.”

The be­lief among the GOP that the pres­id­ent won’t act on good faith in the cur­rent ne­go­ti­ations is fur­ther strain­ing the broken re­la­tion­ship between the two men. Rather than try­ing to cut a deal with Re­pub­lic­ans, Obama might work only to­ward de­feat­ing them in next year’s midterms, to try to re­-take the House. At that point, as­sum­ing his party re­tains the Sen­ate, con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats would be poised to pass le­gis­la­tion as they did dur­ing Obama’s first two years in of­fice. “In the mat­rix they’re craft­ing to take back the House, there’s no func­tion for bi­par­tis­an­ship,” said Mike Fer­ence, a former aide to Can­tor.

Obama’s re­cent ac­tions haven’t put GOP wor­ries to rest. His in­aug­ur­al speech was long on ur­ging the coun­try to ad­opt a pro­gress­ive agenda but short on em­phas­iz­ing the need for com­prom­ise. After com­pletely ig­nor­ing House Demo­crats in 2012, the pres­id­ent an­nounced plans to hold eight fun­draisers for them this cycle. Obama, in the eyes of the GOP, seems less in­ter­ested in work­ing with Re­pub­lic­ans than in rolling over them.

The at­ro­phy­ing of strong re­la­tion­ships on Cap­it­ol Hill is only one of many reas­ons po­lar­iz­a­tion is so en­trenched. Cer­tainly the pro­lif­er­a­tion of power­ful polit­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tions, such as the free-mar­ket Club for Growth, and the in­flu­ence of par­tis­an me­dia have also played a role. In the big­ger pic­ture, the dec­ades-long pop­u­lar sort­ing out between the parties and their ideo­logy has prob­ably mattered most: Con­ser­vat­ive South­ern Demo­crats and lib­er­al North­east­ern Re­pub­lic­ans are now nearly ex­tinct.But an­oth­er sug­ges­ted cause of in­creased po­lar­iz­a­tion, ger­ry­mandered dis­tricts, re­mains hotly dis­puted in the polit­ic­al-sci­ence com­munity. Re­search shows that mem­bers’ vot­ing be­ha­vi­or changes only slightly, if at all, with the par­tis­an makeup of their dis­trict; law­makers sup­port whatever their party de­cides, ac­cord­ing to this ar­gu­ment.

The dis­repair of per­son­al re­la­tion­ships in Wash­ing­ton plays only a minor role in the ab­sence of party comity. But more so than oth­er long-term factors, this is something the cur­rent play­ers can con­trol. As le­gis­lat­ors try to craft dif­fi­cult bi­par­tis­an com­prom­ises, a will­ing­ness to cross party lines, even at the risk of cri­ti­cism from col­leagues, is cru­cial. It’s why Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Marco Ru­bio’s in­clin­a­tion to work with Demo­crats on im­mig­ra­tion re­form or Demo­crat­ic Rep. Ron Wyden’s col­lab­or­a­tion with Ry­an on health care were so widely praised; such ef­forts at­tract pos­it­ive at­ten­tion be­cause they are so rare.

Polit­ic­al en­emies have worked to­geth­er for the com­mon good be­fore. Boehner and the late Sen. Ed­ward Kennedy col­lab­or­ated on No Child Left Be­hind. And Gin­grich got along fam­ously with Clin­ton, Br­eaux said, be­cause the two men re­spec­ted each oth­er. “Even when he was try­ing to im­peach [Clin­ton], they were still able to over­come that and get things done,” Br­eaux said.

He ad­ded: “I think that lack of per­son­al re­la­tion­ships in the le­gis­lat­ive body is ab­so­lutely the most harm­ful thing, ex­ceed­ing any philo­soph­ic­al dif­fer­ences. It can over­come strin­gent dis­agree­ments.”

Hill Demo­crats are openly en­cour­aging Obama, whom they saw as fail­ing to reach out dur­ing his first term, to re­build those re­la­tion­ships. “What kind of com­mit­ment from the White House will there be to work the Con­gress ag­gress­ively, daily and con­tinu­ously?” wondered Glick­man, who is now a seni­or fel­low at the Bi­par­tis­an Policy Cen­ter. “It can be pain­ful to do that, be­cause pres­id­ents don’t like that part of the job. I’m not sure this pres­id­ent likes it either.”

Un­less the tone im­proves, Hill-watch­ers are doubt­ful about any le­gis­la­tion’s op­por­tun­ity for suc­cess. “These are very con­ten­tious times,” Fer­ence said. “There are sig­ni­fic­ant policy areas where some bi­par­tis­an­ship can be achieved, but I don’t know how we do any of it in the en­vir­on­ment we have right now.”

What even­tu­ally passes and what doesn’t will come down to the in­di­vidu­al pieces of le­gis­la­tion. Ob­serv­ers be­lieve that im­mig­ra­tion re­form, already be­ing craf­ted by a bi­par­tis­an group of eight sen­at­ors in the up­per cham­ber, has the greatest chance for pas­sage, be­cause of the high stakes in­volved for the GOP. But many cau­tion that suc­cess will still hinge on the yet-to-be de­term­ined de­tails. Mur­ki­er still are the chances of passing gun-vi­ol­ence meas­ures — par­tic­u­larly ban­ning as­sault rifles or high-ca­pa­city magazines, and strength­en­ing back­ground checks — not to men­tion a grand bar­gain on de­fi­cit re­duc­tion.

What, ex­actly, would qual­i­fy as suc­cess­ful bi­par­tis­an­ship this year? Cer­tainly, passing com­pre­hens­ive meas­ures on im­mig­ra­tion, guns, and de­fi­cit re­duc­tion will need a shock­ing, even his­tor­ic level of co­oper­a­tion among the bick­er­ing parties. But per­haps con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al of even one of those is­sues, while turn­ing down the volume of usu­al par­tis­an ran­cor, might qual­i­fy as a suc­cess, at least re­l­at­ive to re­cent ses­sions. Es­pe­cially if lower-pro­file but still im­port­ant items, such as the farm bill, can pass quietly in­to law without much wrangling between the parties. That might be all any­one can reas­on­ably hope for on Cap­it­ol Hill.

It won’t be Clin­ton and Gin­grich re­dux, but even a faint echo of that peri­od would stand out these days. “I’m not look­ing for heav­en on earth,” Glick­man said. “But I am more op­tim­ist­ic.”

COR­REC­TION: A graph­ic ac­com­pa­ny­ing this story ori­gin­ally in­dic­ated that Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., would not seek reelec­tion in 2014.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.