News Column

Will Capitol Hill Leaders Bargain or Battle?

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Gridlock in Washington could cost you your job. Or torpedo your 401(k). Or endanger your Medicare benefits. That's how important it is for President Barack Obama and congressional leaders to break through the legislative logjam and work together to solve the country's monumental money problems.

These Democrats and Republicans only have until Jan. 1, for example, to avoid a "fiscal cliff' that could raise taxes for all, slash funding for most federal programs and throw the economy into another recession.

The Observer asked political experts how they would fix a broken Washington. They proposed some reforms to the system. But mostly what we heard was a call for a new burst of leadership, one that understands -- as the best past leaders did -- that doing "the people's business" requires compromise, bipartisanship and roll-up-your-sleeves bargaining.

"Compromise is at the heart of any democracy that's working," said the Rev. Doug Tanner of the Faith & Politics Institute in Washington.

Eric Heberlig, a political scientist at UNC Charlotte, offered this: "You go down in history for solving the big problems."

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Norm Ornstein -- Capitol Hill scholar, "Roll Call" columnist and author of several books on Congress -- says the current Washington scene is "the most dysfunctional in our lifetime."

"Maybe not quite as bad as during the Civil War, the War of 1812 or the 1890s," he says. "But these are not great periods to compare yourself to."

His view is echoed by Sarah Binder, a George Washington University political scientist who studied the history of congressional gridlock for her book, "Stalemate."

"All indications are that (this) is one of the more stalemated Congresses post-World War II," she says. "They left on the table quite a number of the big issues of the day."

She ticks off the list: debt, now estimated at over $16 trillion; Medicare, set to go broke by 2024 if no action is taken; immigration reform, which could resolve the legal status of 11 million undocumented residents; and a farm bill, desperately needed at a time of record droughts.

Some bills and judicial nominations were casualties of what's become a weekly filibuster in the Senate. "It's fair to say that the level and intensity of obstruction has increased," Binder says.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., recently told "60 Minutes" that he's had to try to override 248 GOP filibusters during his tenure. His 1950s predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, only had to deal with one, Reid said.

Much recent legislation, Binder says, languished because one side or the other just wouldn't compromise: "This is a Congress that had a very hard time coming to the table and taking half a loaf."

Just last year, Standard & Poor's cited "less stable, less effective" governance and the "political brinksmanship" over whether to raise the debt limit as the reason for its first-ever downgrade of the United States' credit rating. Another low last year: Congress' public approval rating plunged to 9 percent -- its lowest since polling began in1976.

Some current members of Congress dispute the notion that Washington is broken.

"It's similar to the way it's been for 200 years," argues U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C. "People just know more about the ins and outs of Washington because of social media and the 24-hour news cycle. Somebody will have tweeted what's happened at a closed-door meeting before it's even over."

But count U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., among those wearied by the legislative paralysis. "There are days when I enjoy what I'm doing," he says. "But there are other days when I think, 'What in the world am I doing here? We've been up here all week and haven't done a thing.'€"

What others said:

--"It's mainly tribalism (in Congress). The chief job for members of Congress is to be unified. And they're given the message of the week. They're not encouraged to think for themselves. And they have to cater to a donor base that is pretty partisan." -- New York Times columnist David Brooks

--"There's always been partisanship. ... But I do think we have more today than in the 1990s, when I was active in Washington..." -- Former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles

--"(According to the Constitution,) being in Congress was not to be a love feast. It was to be a hard-fought contest, during which the best ideas emerge. But it can be taken to extremes." -- Former U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C.

--"Do you know of any members (of Congress) who got 9 percent (of the vote in November)? It's easy to hate Congress and like your congressman." -- U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., referring to the record-low congressional approval rating last year

How did American politics get so partisan, polarized?

Some social scientists have a one-word answer for how Congress got to be so averse to compromise: sorting.

It happens when people choose to cluster with others who are like them, who believe the same things they do.

Sorting has changed America's two major political parties from big-tent coalitions that won elections by accommodating many points of view to ideological clubs that expect members to be in lockstep on issues. Compromise with the other party? That's considered "sleeping with the enemy," in the words of Norm Ornstein, a leading authority on Congress.

Conservative Democrats, mostly in the South, and liberal Republicans, mostly in the Northeast, used to serve as bridges between the parties and were part of the broad center that once characterized American politics. You'd need a bloodhound to find more than a handful of either these days -- especially in the halls of Congress.

What's left is a conservative party, a liberal party and -- says Eric Heberlig, a professor of political science at UNC Charlotte -- "no middle anymore to create any type of compromise."

This year's election brought the defeat of U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell, a moderate "Blue Dog Democrat" from North Carolina, and U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, a moderate Republican in Massachusetts. Kissell will be replaced by a very conservative Republican, Brown by a very liberal Democrat.

This march toward like-mindedness also affects people's decisions about where to live and what to watch on TV -- two other forms of sorting that have also made Congress more polarized.

"People who are more progressive, more in favor of government, socially liberal, secular, are moving to the cities," says David Schanzer, a Duke University public policy professor. "In the exurbs (outer edges of suburbs), that leaves more white, more conservative, more religious people."

The connection to Congress? These areas become parts of House districts that lean so far to one party or the other that they amount to "homogenous echo chambers," in the words of Ornstein, co-author of a new book on Congress called "It's Even Worse Than It Looks."

Finally, there's the rise of a political media, which stokes partisan passions on a daily basis. For Republicans, there's radio talker Rush Limbaugh and Fox News with Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity; for Democrats, it's MSNBC with Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell.

A study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism found that Fox and MSNBC got more extreme in the final days of the 2012 presidential campaign, with spikes in attacks on Romney (by MSNBC) and Obama (by Fox).

Instead of counseling civility and compromise in the House and Senate, Ornstein says, these ratings-driven hosts have demonstrated that "in this culture, screaming is OK and there's no punishment for lies."

Also keeping the parties at the extremes: money. It's always played a major role in determining who gets to Congress -- and how they vote. But, in recent years, more campaign cash has come from groups with partisan and ideological goals.

"Money comes from the activist wings of the parties," says Sarah Binder, a George Washington University professor with an expertise in Congress.

Rather than contributing to a congressional candidate's campaign, some outside groups with fat wallets will buy their own TV ads attacking that candidate's opponent. With the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case, there are few limits any more on how much they can spend.

And if a member of Congress doesn't toe the ideological line, groups that give money can also take it away and redirect it to a primary election challenger.

"If there's a Democrat (in Congress) who is willing to talk about compromise involving appropriate cuts in the entitlement programs so that they are sustainably solvent, the AARP or the AFL will run somebody in the primary and fund them pretty heavily to beat him or her," says Erskine Bowles, former White House chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. "And in one of these all-Republican districts, if there's a Republican who wants to express support for reforming the tax code and raising revenue, then Grover Norquist (head of Americans for Tax Reform) ... will go out and raise money to run somebody against him or her."

This looming threat of being "primaryed," as it's now called, has led to more members of Congress clinging to the extreme left or extreme right, Bowles says, "and so there's fewer people in what I would call the sensible center. That makes it harder to get something done today than it used to be."

What others said

--"Now, when you go interview a Democratic House member, all they say is 'Well, I saw that Rachel said this, Rachel said that.' And if you go interview a Republican, it's 'Well, O'Reilly said this or Rush said that.' But (these hosts') interest isn't in making deals (on Capitol Hill). Their interest is to have a sort of economic culture war." -- New York Times columnist David Brooks

--"They just don't tolerate any moderates in their party anymore." -- U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., speaking of Republicans

--"Where is their middle now? The Blue Dogs (moderate Democrats in Congress) are down." -- U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., speaking of Democrats

What can you do to make a difference?

Don't be part of the problem by expecting your representative to deliver all gain and no pain.

"People want to have their cake and eat it, too -- they want to have low taxes and high spending. You can't have both," says New York Times columnist David Brooks. "A lot of it is a problem with the followers."

Practice what you preach to politicians.

"Don't just blame Washington," says the Rev. Doug Tanner, senior adviser to the Faith & Politics Institute in Washington. "(You) need to be more fully engaged in finding common ground and communicating to (your) leaders to do the same."

Understand that deal-making in Washington can get messy.

"The public sees the bargaining, the game of chicken," says Eric Heberlig, a political science professor at UNC Charlotte. "Even if (lawmakers) reach agreement at the end, the public is so turned off by the process that they kind of dismiss the results."

Own your power to change Washington.

"We're so passive," says Mark Erwin, a former ambassador in the Clinton administration. "€'Oh. It's terrible,' we say, then flip the channel and go to a football game."

Instead, says former U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., "Let (politicians) know that if they don't vote sensibly. ... Their jobs are in jeopardy."

And dig into the issues -- knowledge is power, too. Adds Spratt: "We've got to have an electorate that understands what needs to be done."

If you want members of Congress to reach across party lines, reward them when they do -- and punish them when they don't.

"We need to elect candidates who are willing to compromise, who are willing to listen, who are not just advocating ideological solutions to problems," says UNCC's Eric Heberlig. "Look for (candidates) who are problem solvers first and ideologues second. Right now, it's the opposite: We're electing ideologues who are good at articulating our grievances but less good about actually doing anything or compromising something to have decent solutions to those grievances."