I do not doubt that there will be significant differences between a second term Obama administration and a first term Romney administration. But, barring some unforeseen event, it seems unlikely that either party will control the White House and both houses of Congress. The Democrats have an outside chance at taking the House. The Republicans have a better chance of taking the Senate, but no chance at getting a 60-vote majority in that body. Consequently, and sad to say, your vote won’t count this November.
The dysfunction in Washington is not only obvious, it is increasingly intractable. And, apart from the relative temperament of either party, the causes of this dysfunction are threefold and neither party seems inclined to do much about them.
The first problem is re-districting. In an article in this morning’s Washington Post, Congressman John Barrow, co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition and a Democrat from Georgia’s 12th district, notes that forty years ago, almost half of all congressional districts were genuinely competitive. In any given election cycle, a significant number of politicians could be hurled out of office by the electorate in the general election. Consequently, these members of Congress needed to find ways to appeal to constituents who did not share their party affiliation, they needed to “win the center,” and the way to do that was to work across the aisle to find compromise solutions to the nation’s problems.
Today, only ten percent of the nation’s congressional districts are considered genuinely competitive and the problem is only getting worse not better. In the other ninety percent, the districts are so carefully drawn along partisan lines that it is well nigh to impossible for someone from the other party to win in the general election. Members of Congress from such districts, therefore, do not need to “win the center,” because the center has been excluded from the equation. Instead – and here is the real difficulty – they need to worry about a primary challenger, someone who could marshal the resources of special interest groups, especially fundraising, to unseat an incumbent. Primary fights are low turnout affairs so it is in the nature of the beast that those most likely to vote are also those most ideologically committed to either the right or the left. Most current members, then, have almost no electoral incentive to compromise but every incentive to make sure they never offend a powerful, ideologically driven group.
This dynamic is not limited to the House – it was what sent Sen. Richard Lugar into early retirement a couple of weeks ago. Lugar was certainly conservative but his primary challenger accused Lugar of – horror of horrors – working too closely with Democrats. “I have a mindset that says bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view,” said Richard Mourdock, the man who beat Lugar by twenty points in the Indiana GOP primary. Oh, is that how it is supposed to happen?
In the Senate, of course, there is a different impediment to democracy known as the filibuster. The founders considered putting a filibuster into the Constitution, and decided against it. But, the founders did allow each house of Congress to set its own rules. Originally the Senate adopted a provision allowing the body to “move the question,” that is, close debate and move to a vote. But, after a few years, when re-working the rules, and at the behest of Aaron Burr, of whom it could be said that everything he touched turned out ill, the removed the rule about moving the question, leaving in tact the rule permitting any senator to speak as long as he (or later she) wished. It was more than thirty years before this glitch was discovered and the first filibuster launched. Since then, both parties have chosen to keep the filibuster option which not only gives the minority greater rights within the chamber (and no one knows if, at the next election, you might not find yourself in the minority) but it strengthens the power of each individual senator over the whole.
What has changed in recent years, however, has been the increasing frequency with which the filibuster has been used, not least because the Senate decided that now it is only necessary to serve warning of one to effect one. The image of Jimmy Stewart standing in the Senate speaking hour after hour is now a thing of fiction. You do not have to actually conduct a filibuster anymore, just threaten one. This change, combined with the growing polarization of our polity, has had an ugly result. Filibusters have become routine. The Senate website offers this chart which shows the explosion of filibusters in recent years. In short, a rarely used provision, designed to secure the rights of the minority party in extreme circumstances now effectively gives that minority the right to bring government to a halt.
Why is there no greater outcry over these two profoundly anti-democratic (that’s with a small “d”) measures? Because, in terms of understanding politics, we have become a nation of morons. Part of this has to do with the absence or neglect of Civics classes, both at the high school and collegiate levels. My friend Peter Berkowitz had a nice essay on the failure to teach the Federalist Papers in college at the Wall Street Journal the other day. The media is complicit too. The other day I was looking for news coverage of the inauguration of the new president of France but neither the cable or network news seemed interested. However, NBC Nightly News finally did have a long (by TV standards) segment…on the differences between Carla Bruni, the supermodel and outgoing First Lady of France, and the incoming girlfriend of the new president. Yeesh.
We have no one to blame but ourselves. Unless we the voters are willing to punish extremist candidates by getting our butts to the polls for primary elections, we can expect fewer Dick Lugars in the future and more Richard Mourdocks. We can expect an increasingly polarized politics – I have said before, if there were more genuinely competitive districts, the influence of groups like NARAL on the left and the NRA on the right would be greatly diminished and we would not be fighting over contraceptive mandates nor about “stand your ground” laws. Unless we demand our state legislators, who have control over re-districting, to stop gerrymandering all districts, we will continue to live in a country where only 10% of the electorate gets to decide which party controls Congress. And, unless we dust off our copies of the Federalist Papers and teach our kids to think, and think deeply about the promises and the problems of democracy, a new generation more interested in Dancing with the Stars than with the breakdown of democracy will only feed our national slide into political dysfunction.