Why Isn’t the Crisis Vise Forcing Congress to Compromise?

A disaster that applies external pressure to entrenched partisans has always driven lawmakers to find common ground. It isn’t working this time.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 15: The morning sun begins to rise behind the U.S. Capitol, October 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. With the government shutdown going into the fifteenth day and the deadline for raising the debt ceiling fast approaching, Democrats and Republicans may come to an agreement soon on passing a budget. 
National Journal
Major Garrett
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Major Garrett
Oct. 15, 2013, 6:56 p.m.

Con­gress is cap­tive to the cal­en­dar.

Dead­lines dic­tate ac­tion.

There is no reg­u­lar or­der, only reg­u­lar dis­order.

Dis­order is here to stay, and we’d bet­ter start un­der­stand­ing where it came from, why it per­sists, and how to ad­just to what will be an ever-tight­er cycle of budget stale­mates, flir­ta­tions with de­fault, and high-stakes budget hag­gling.

That means shed­ding clichés about na­tion­al con­sensus or na­tion­al mood as it relates to Con­gress. No one in Con­gress wins or loses reelec­tion based on na­tion­al polls or gen­er­ic-bal­lot com­par­is­ons. Es­pe­cially not in Oc­to­ber of an odd-numbered year. Demo­crats hold a 47 per­cent to 39 per­cent gen­er­ic-bal­lot ad­vant­age over Re­pub­lic­ans in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journ­al poll, for ex­ample. Just for some his­tor­ic­al con­text, let’s look at the same poll taken a month be­fore House Demo­crats lost 63 seats to Re­pub­lic­ans in 2010. That sur­vey showed Demo­crats lead­ing Re­pub­lic­ans 46 per­cent to 44 per­cent in the gen­er­ic bal­lot. What’s more, the same poll in Oc­to­ber 2009 gave Demo­crats a 46 per­cent to 38 per­cent gen­er­ic lead over Re­pub­lic­ans.

Not only do things change in polit­ics, na­tion­al num­bers ob­scure dis­trict-by-dis­trict truths and gloss over in­di­vidu­al mem­bers’ cal­cu­la­tions about le­gis­lat­ive votes.

At this stage of any con­gres­sion­al year, if mem­bers sift any na­tion­al polling data, it’s to find out how in­cum­bents are viewed. Anti-in­cum­bency waves are in­dis­crim­in­ate. Just ask former Demo­crat­ic Reps. Jim Ober­star, Ike Skelton, and Gene Taylor (2010) or Re­pub­lic­ans Nancy John­son, Jim Leach, and Anne Northup (2006).

The in­cum­bency news is not very good. When asked in the NBC/WSJ poll, “If there were a place on your bal­lot that al­lowed you to vote to de­feat and re­place every single mem­ber of Con­gress, in­clud­ing your own rep­res­ent­at­ive, would you do this, or not,” 60 per­cent said yes. That same poll right be­fore the 2010 elec­tion re­gistered 45 per­cent.

Sim­il­arly, the Pew Re­search Cen­ter de­tects re­cord-high anti-in­cum­bent sen­ti­ment. Sev­enty-four per­cent of re­spond­ents now say they would like to see most mem­bers of Con­gress de­feated, and 38 per­cent op­pose reelec­tion of their own rep­res­ent­at­ive. In 2010 and 2006, Pew’s num­bers were nev­er high­er than 57 per­cent on de­feat­ing most mem­bers of Con­gress. In 2006, only 25 per­cent op­posed reelec­tion of their rep­res­ent­at­ive. In 2010, that num­ber was 29 per­cent.

When anti-in­cum­bent sen­ti­ments are build­ing, par­tis­ans get right with their base. That im­proves their chances of win­ning a primary, should there be one, and the gen­er­al elec­tion, be­cause their base will be fo­cused and more mo­tiv­ated.

This mat­ters very much in the House just now be­cause the par­tis­ans are hav­ing their say. Back when de­fund­ing or delay­ing Obama­care was part of the shut­down saga, Pew found 77 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans thought Pres­id­ent Obama ought to agree to changes in his health care law. In the same sur­vey, 75 per­cent of Demo­crats thought Re­pub­lic­ans should agree to a deal that left Obama­care un­touched. Even when re­spond­ents were asked if the only way to end the shut­down was to com­prom­ise, 58 per­cent of Demo­crats said it would be un­ac­cept­able for Obama to ac­cept cuts or delays in Obama­care, and 54 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans said it would be un­ac­cept­able to take any deal that didn’t cut or delay the health care law.

Put an­oth­er way, ma­jor­it­ies in both parties would take a gov­ern­ment shut­down over com­prom­ising on Obama­care.

Now, let’s turn to the po­ten­tial of de­fault.

Sixty-three per­cent con­sider it a ser­i­ous prob­lem. But after two weeks of apo­ca­lyptic rhet­or­ic about what de­fault might mean for the U.S. and glob­al eco­nomy, a small ma­jor­ity still fear rais­ing the debt ceil­ing to avoid de­fault more than they fear de­fault it­self.

In the NBC/WSJ poll, 41 per­cent said they were more con­cerned that Con­gress “will raise the debt ceil­ing and that fed­er­al spend­ing will in­crease and the gov­ern­ment will go fur­ther in­to debt as a res­ult.” By com­par­is­on, 37 per­cent said they were more con­cerned the gov­ern­ment would de­fault and not make “pay­ments to So­cial Se­cur­ity re­cip­i­ents and gov­ern­ment work­ers.” This is in a poll with a 9-point split in Obama sup­port­ers over Mitt Rom­ney sup­port­ers (44 per­cent to 35 per­cent). How do you think those ques­tions poll among tea-party Re­pub­lic­ans or in most GOP-held House dis­tricts?

Just for good meas­ure, let’s look at the same sur­vey’s take on Obama­care. Thirty-per­cent of re­spond­ents (re­mem­ber the +9 Obama voter ad­vant­age) said they found the law to be a “good idea” while 43 per­cent thought it was a “bad idea.”

This is not a com­ment­ary on tac­tics or le­gis­lat­ive strategy on the shut­down or the loom­ing de­fault. It’s abund­antly clear there is no strategy. Le­gis­lat­ive tac­tics are ad hoc. No one can count enough votes to move a bill in the House or the Sen­ate.

This para­lys­is is a symp­tom of a deep­er con­di­tion: po­lar­iz­a­tion. The coun­try dis­agrees on big is­sues. Even the trauma of a gov­ern­ment shut­down isn’t dis­lodging par­tis­ans. That means the law­makers who rep­res­ent these dis­par­ate points of view are not go­ing to move vol­un­tar­ily.

They have to be forced in­to com­prom­ise. What is the for­cing mech­an­ism? The crisis vise — a loom­ing and polit­ic­ally fright­en­ing crisis that ap­plies equal ex­tern­al pres­sure to en­trenched par­tis­ans. The crisis vise forces com­prom­ise. It also cre­ates enough pub­lic con­cern/anxi­ety that com­prom­ise is not con­sidered an act of sur­render.

The crisis vise is the com­mon de­nom­in­at­or in every budget saga.

Fear of a gov­ern­ment shut­down led to nom­in­al budget cuts in April 2011.

Fear of de­fault led to pas­sage of the Budget Con­trol Act in Au­gust 2011.

Fear of the so-called fisc­al cliff led this Janu­ary to the first in­come-tax in­crease since 1991.

The vise is the only thing that has worked. There is no com­ing to­geth­er. There is only ex­tern­al pres­sure.

Those com­prom­ises aver­ted crises but did not please the par­tis­ans. If any­thing, par­tis­ans are more res­ist­ant to com­prom­ise than ever. The crisis vise may have lim­it­a­tions, just like an­ti­bi­ot­ics.

Fear of de­fault is ap­ply­ing max­im­um pres­sure on the sys­tem right now. What we are see­ing now — this week — is the po­ten­tial lim­its of this pres­sure. That’s the biggest story of the year, pos­sibly of this en­tire era of di­vided gov­ern­ment.

The specter of a gov­ern­ment shut­down forced a com­prom­ise in April 2011. It didn’t this month.

The shut­down is now 16 days old.

The threat of a gov­ern­ment de­fault yiel­ded a debt-ceil­ing and de­fi­cit-re­duc­tion com­prom­ise in 2011.

De­fault is a day away.

The vise is all we’ve got.

Pity if it breaks.

The au­thor is Na­tion­al Journ­al cor­res­pond­ent-at-large and chief White House cor­res­pond­ent for CBS News. He is also a dis­tin­guished fel­low at the George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity School of Me­dia and Pub­lic Af­fairs.

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