Wednesday, August 22, 2007

one more reason Congress is so partisan…

In an essay entitled “Why is Congress so partisan?” in the Jeff-NA Tribune, former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-IN) wrestles with the question implied by the editor’s choice of title. Hamilton opens by recounting an anecdote and providing his thesis:

Early in my U.S. House career, I trekked over to the Senate to watch a debate between Hubert Humphrey and Barry Goldwater, two of the great ideological warriors of the era. I remember the heat they generated as the two men -- knowledgeable, passionate, and deeply committed to their vastly different points of view -- went at each other hammer and tongs. I remember just as keenly what happened afterward: They joked together as they left the floor, heading off to have a drink.

In the intensely partisan atmosphere that reigns today on Capitol Hill, it is much less common for two legislators to pursue their beliefs with such intensity of purpose, yet remain fast friends or work together when their interests coincide.

From there, he proceeds to analyze this increase in political animosity. (I always hesitate when I hear comparisons to the good ol’ days. But for a variety of reasons—including what Hamilton wrote and what I’m adding here—I think Hamilton is correct.) He starts with redistricting in general and gerrymandering in particular—and argues that it’s led to more extreme representation in Congress. From there, he talks about the role of interest groups, a more partisan public, the greater struggle in the last decade to become the majority party in Congress, the Congressional schedule, and the lack of “institutionalists” (people like Hamilton who put the institution of Congress on a higher pedestal than individual or partisan achievement).

In the end, he seems optimistic that things can and will change:

My hope, oddly enough, lies in the low standing Congress currently enjoys. For all its faults, it does respond to public pressure, and if enough Americans let their members know that they're unhappy with the intense partisanship they see, change will come.

Here, Hamilton is confusing/conflating the institution with the individuals who occupy that institution. The public is generally quite content with their own representatives but unhappy with Congress as a whole. Since we can only change our rep, nothing is likely to change.

In terms of his analysis, Hamilton underestimates one of the causes and in pointing to two symptoms, ignores the chief cause.

First, the tight balance of power in Washington is a huge issue. With so much is at stake, reps are more willing to sacrifice “principle” to maintain political power. Oddly, a strongly Democratic Congress will be more fiscally conservative than a lean Republican majority (especially in combination with a nominally-popular Republican president—as we have seen). Why? A Democratic Congress is ideologically bent toward more spending. But they will feel less threatened by the minority party, and thus, will not engage in vote-buying (with our money!) as often.

Second, the increasing size and scope of the Federal government again means much more is at stake. Predictably, the tendency will be to move from what Hamilton calls “institutionalists” and those who are “knowledgeable, passionate, and deeply committed to their points of view” to power-hungry and power-preserving reps—political animals who vacillate with perceived political whims and are driven more by polls than principle.

Again, the issue is not so much Democrat/Republican (partisan) as much as it is a pervasive lack of principle on both sides of the aisle.