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.

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.


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.

Democrats were in a similar position from 2007 to 2009, when they controlled Congress but wanted to wait out Bush's tenure. The lack of bipartisanship, of course, didn't prevent major legislation from becoming law over the past 10 years. But when Democrats controlled Washington and passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, or similarly empowered Republicans approved Medicare Part D in 2003, they didn't need the backing of the other party -- and by and large didn't get it.

This session is different. Neither party has unilateral control, and yet there is an appetite, in the first year of Obama's second term, to make a serious attempt to legislate. The last time Capitol Hill saw something similar came in 2001 and 2002. Republicans suddenly lost the Senate when Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont defected from the GOP in the early summer, but Congress still overwhelmingly approved the No Child Left Behind Act months later (although the first round of Bush's tax cuts passed with only a dozen or so Democrats on board in each chamber). Later, the parties worked together to approve a slew of national security issues after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But drawing comparisons to that period is difficult because of 9/11; and, besides, most of Bush's term is hardly associated with bipartisan comity. The better parallel -- and the experience current optimists point to -- is 1996 and 1997, which bridges the end of President Clinton's first term and the beginning of his second. That two-year span saw agreements on a series of important issues, ranging from two big-ticket items (welfare reform and a balanced-budget agreement) to lesser-known achievements (such as raising the minimum wage).

The similarity between that period and now extends beyond the split control of government. Only a year earlier, Republicans had ridden the "revolution" of 1994 into control of Congress, when they promised to push their agenda whether Clinton approved or not. But the party ultimately dealt with political setbacks, none more damaging than the government shutdown of 1996. The public blamed Republicans, and afterward Clinton never again trailed GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole (who was Senate majority leader at the time of the shutdown) in a head-to-head matchup, according to preelection polls.


Boehner's Challenge

Public opinion might once again be pulling against Republicans, burnt as they were by Obama's reelection and their unexpected losses in the Senate. In a January poll by The Wall Street Journal and NBC News, 49 percent of adults disapproved of the GOP -- and only 26 percent approved. It was the worst rating for Republicans since 2008. Just as the Republicans in Clinton's time decided their political survival depended on coming to the table, the GOP of today might do the same. "Republicans overplayed the government shutdown, and President Clinton won that battle," said Dan Glickman, a former House member who was Clinton's Agriculture secretary. "And, with that, he effectively used the bully pulpit to control the agenda. He gave a lot of cover for people to vote for him. It's not the only factor, but members of Congress are much [more] likely to support a president when the people at home are inclined to support the president."

How much Obama's broad popularity matters to most GOP House members is debatable. With many of the president's supporters packed into heavily Democratic urban districts, most Republicans represent safely red districts. (In November, Mitt Romney won 227 congressional districts, a majority, despite losing by 4 percentage points in the national vote.)

But Obama's standing could weigh more heavily on House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor than on their followers; Cantor has recently attempted to rebrand the party with a softer image. While their charges' interests are more parochial, they have the national party's image to worry about. Popular opinion could prod the two leaders to reach agreements with Obama, especially on emotional issues such as gun control and immigration. Or, at the very least, public pressure could work to ease the disagreements that make even basic government action difficult -- a factor that might have been at work when House Republicans engineered a three-month delay of the debt ceiling. "They're hearing the message outside the Beltway that 'we elected you people to make things work,'" said John Breaux, the former longtime Democratic senator from Louisiana.

The onus falls particularly hard on Boehner, whose struggles to control his conference are well documented. More than any other player in Washington, he will determine whether anything gets done this year. How he decides to proceed could rest on how frequently he's willing to leave conservative colleagues out in the cold and, consequently, how far he's willing to risk his speakership.

The good of the party, and not his seat of power, propelled Boehner's decision to bring the superstorm Sandy relief bill to a vote earlier this year, when it passed with just a minority of support from Republicans. That combination -- Democrats and the moderate wing of the House GOP -- is the pathway to enacting a sweeping set of bipartisan agreements.

A week after the storm vote, a large bipartisan majority passed a three-month extension of the debt ceiling. "It is hard to see this Congress being viewed as a bipartisan one, but we have seen a glimmer of light on the recent bipartisan vote to extend the debt ceiling," said Ron Bonjean, a onetime aide to the Republican leadership.

Obama's Duty

Maintaining that momentum in the House won't be easy, and it could require Obama's personal leadership. Getting Boehner to take such a perilous route could depend in large part on successful cajoling from the president. And on this subject -- the relationships among Washington's top leaders -- discussion of a deal being cut becomes sharply pessimistic.

The two men's relationship is described as personally friendly, but professionally it has produced nothing but dysfunction. What began with the debt-limit negotiations of 2011 culminated in last year's failed fiscal-cliff talks. Boehner has vowed never to negotiate with Obama one-on-one again.

Washington has had a litany of successful speaker-president relationships through the years. Think Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton -- or Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill in the 1980s. But Obama and Boehner haven't been able to find a workable formula. "There is zero trust between Boehner and the president, and trust is what's necessary to get deals done," said Mike Hacker, a former Democratic leadership aide. "It's not just mutual interest."

The belief among the GOP that the president won't act on good faith in the current negotiations is further straining the broken relationship between the two men. Rather than trying to cut a deal with Republicans, Obama might work only toward defeating them in next year's midterms, to try to re­-take the House. At that point, assuming his party retains the Senate, congressional Democrats would be poised to pass legislation as they did during Obama's first two years in office. "In the matrix they're crafting to take back the House, there's no function for bipartisanship," said Mike Ference, a former aide to Cantor.

Obama's recent actions haven't put GOP worries to rest. His inaugural speech was long on urging the country to adopt a progressive agenda but short on emphasizing the need for compromise. After completely ignoring House Democrats in 2012, the president announced plans to hold eight fundraisers for them this cycle. Obama, in the eyes of the GOP, seems less interested in working with Republicans than in rolling over them.

The atrophying of strong relationships on Capitol Hill is only one of many reasons polarization is so entrenched. Certainly the proliferation of powerful political organizations, such as the free-market Club for Growth, and the influence of partisan media have also played a role. In the bigger picture, the decades-long popular sorting out between the parties and their ideology has probably mattered most: Conservative Southern Democrats and liberal Northeastern Republicans are now nearly extinct.But another suggested cause of increased polarization, gerrymandered districts, remains hotly disputed in the political-science community. Research shows that members' voting behavior changes only slightly, if at all, with the partisan makeup of their district; lawmakers support whatever their party decides, according to this argument.


The disrepair of personal relationships in Washington plays only a minor role in the absence of party comity. But more so than other long-term factors, this is something the current players can control. As legislators try to craft difficult bipartisan compromises, a willingness to cross party lines, even at the risk of criticism from colleagues, is crucial. It's why Republican Sen. Marco Rubio's inclination to work with Democrats on immigration reform or Democratic Rep. Ron Wyden's collaboration with Ryan on health care were so widely praised; such efforts attract positive attention because they are so rare.

Political enemies have worked together for the common good before. Boehner and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy collaborated on No Child Left Behind. And Gingrich got along famously with Clinton, Breaux said, because the two men respected each other. "Even when he was trying to impeach [Clinton], they were still able to overcome that and get things done," Breaux said.

He added: "I think that lack of personal relationships in the legislative body is absolutely the most harmful thing, exceeding any philosophical differences. It can overcome stringent disagreements."

Hill Democrats are openly encouraging Obama, whom they saw as failing to reach out during his first term, to rebuild those relationships. "What kind of commitment from the White House will there be to work the Congress aggressively, daily and continuously?" wondered Glickman, who is now a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "It can be painful to do that, because presidents don't like that part of the job. I'm not sure this president likes it either."

Unless the tone improves, Hill-watchers are doubtful about any legislation's opportunity for success. "These are very contentious times," Ference said. "There are significant policy areas where some bipartisanship can be achieved, but I don't know how we do any of it in the environment we have right now."


What eventually passes and what doesn't will come down to the individual pieces of legislation. Observers believe that immigration reform, already being crafted by a bipartisan group of eight senators in the upper chamber, has the greatest chance for passage, because of the high stakes involved for the GOP. But many caution that success will still hinge on the yet-to-be determined details. Murkier still are the chances of passing gun-violence measures -- particularly banning assault rifles or high-capacity magazines, and strengthening background checks -- not to mention a grand bargain on deficit reduction.

What, exactly, would qualify as successful bipartisanship this year? Certainly, passing comprehensive measures on immigration, guns, and deficit reduction will need a shocking, even historic level of cooperation among the bickering parties. But perhaps congressional approval of even one of those issues, while turning down the volume of usual partisan rancor, might qualify as a success, at least relative to recent sessions. Especially if lower-profile but still important items, such as the farm bill, can pass quietly into law without much wrangling between the parties. That might be all anyone can reasonably hope for on Capitol Hill.

It won't be Clinton and Gingrich redux, but even a faint echo of that period would stand out these days. "I'm not looking for heaven on earth," Glickman said. "But I am more optimistic."