There's Reason to Be Optimistic About Congress—Seriously

National Journal's annual ratings of House and Senate members show the body was more polarized than ever in 2012, but there are reasons not to despair in 2013.

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The opening session of the 113th Congress (Rick Bloom/National Journal)

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.

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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 -- 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.

Favorable Conditions

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.

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Alex Roarty is a politics writer for National Journal.

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