A veteran senator, in a private conversation last week, was despondent: “This place is dysfunctional, and it’s not going to get any better,” he said. It could have been a Democrat or a Republican from the North, South, Midwest or West.
Washington doesn’t work these days; on that there is a rare bipartisan consensus. Many conservatives relish that reality with President Barack Obama in office, reveling in government gridlock.
They felt less enamored with political paralysis during the George W. Bush years. The Democrats are no more consistent in their situational view.
To be sure, the U.S. goes through periodic bouts of anxiety that the country is ungovernable -- 30 years ago, one of the wisest men in Washington, the lawyer Lloyd Cutler, proposed adopting a parliamentary system of governance. And a meanness and pettiness have been prevalent from the Founding Fathers through the McCarthy witch-hunting era of the 1950s to contemporary times.
Yet those reminders don’t lessen the reality that government, at least on the federal level, responds to big challenges only if there’s a crisis. This is obvious to foreign observers such as the Chinese, who believe their authoritarian system is better able to take bold action in the global economy.
It is also clear to emerging powers such as Brazil. Eike Batista, the billionaire Brazilian businessman, decried the “political gridlock” in the U.S. political system in an interview with Charlie Rose published in Bloomberg BusinessWeek last month.
“In Brazil, our president can implement emergency measures for six months,” he said, adding that’s why Brazil “came out of [the financial crisis] so much faster than everybody else.”
The argument that Washington rarely has put aside partisan considerations when the stakes are big is wrong. In 1978, a weakened president, Jimmy Carter, proposed an unpopular pact, a treaty turning the Panama Canal over to Panamanian control. The Senate Republican leader, Howard Baker of Tennessee, knowing the stakes, supported the president, securing passage of a treaty that has been vital for U.S. relations with that hemisphere. Can anyone imagine Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky doing that today?
“People say there’s always been incivility in public life, citing the Washington or Jefferson times, without measuring the density of those comments,” says Walter Dellinger, a former U.S. solicitor general. “They pick out random writings from papers or historians; it’s not anything approaching the drumbeat we have today of accusations and counteraccusations.”
Much of this emanates from the media; one night, watch Fox News for three hours in primetime and the next night try MSNBC. Liberals increasingly focus on left-wing blogs, conservatives rely on right-wing blogs. There’s little that can be done about that.
The problem will be aggravated when the effects of the Supreme Court’s January ruling vastly expanding the influence of special interests money in political campaigns are fully felt. This is an illustration of why the Court, ever since the resignation of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, needs someone who’s actually faced a voter. The majority simply have no idea of the practical effects of this decision.
One place where constructive change is possible is Congress, the greatest source of dysfunction. It’s tough to argue that as divisive as the issues are, the stakes are higher than a generation ago. Yet polarization has increased. Congressional Quarterly, which tracks such data, reports that in the 1960s and 1970s almost party-line votes used to account for about one-third to 40 percent of the tallies in the House; in the last couple years it’s between 50 percent and 60 percent.
Nolan J. McCarty, a Princeton University political scientist who’s written a book on polarization, found, based on Congressional votes, that Democrats are more liberal than 40 years ago and Republicans are much more conservative.
“Party polarization has increased dramatically,” McCarty says. “It is at the highest level ever under the Democratic-Republican party system going back to the Civil War.”
Parties, Not Issues
It’s the politicians and parties, not the issues. Since the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s, the South has had a Democratic Party dominated by black liberal representatives, and a Republican Party consisting almost exclusively of staunch conservatives. Southern middle-of-the-roaders in either party are a small force. Likewise, on both the West and East coasts, moderate Republicans are almost extinct.
A major cause is redistricting, which overwhelmingly creates heavily partisan districts to the benefit of the politicians who are drawing these boundaries; incumbency protection is the priority. If pressure were built nationally and locally for independent redistricting commissions, it might produce both better results and Congress with more members willing to reach across the political aisle.
The same polarization is true in the Senate, with an added impediment: the filibuster. It was in 1919 that the Senate first required a two-thirds vote to cut off unlimited debate, with the expectation that it would be used only for issues of great import. For most of the ensuing 50 years, that was the case; during the entirety of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, 12 years, there were only four cloture votes to cut off a filibuster. Last year there were 39 cloture votes, and more filibusters.
The limit was changed to 60 votes in 1975, and the Senate today is governed by a supermajority, not a simple majority. Over the last couple years, Republicans in the Senate have abused this process to routinely filibuster Obama’s nominations and any legislation of any consequence.
There probably is a case to be made that would weaken the reality that a supermajority is necessary to do business in the Senate. That will take a while.
In the meantime, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada should start worrying less about the convenience and fundraising and travel plans of his members and call the Republicans’ bluff on these incessant talk-a-thons. Maybe then they can talk around the clock and on weekends.
Soon, even these politicians might get embarrassed.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)