President George Washington once warned about the “baneful effects” of party politics.
Since then, the nation has faced its share of political gridlock. Congressmen in the 1890s hid under their desks to deny the opposing party a quorum. In 1964, foes of the Civil Rights Act mounted a 75-day filibuster before the bill passed.
Still, the gridlock that has tied up Congress in recent years — including this month’s fiscal crisis — appears to be nearing historic levels, three Nebraska political scientists said Monday.
“Every era thinks it’s never been as bad as it was now, but looking back on it, all of those eras look pretty good,” said Tim Hill, a political scientist at Doane College in Crete, Neb.
“I don’t know, historically, if we’ve seen this level of disagreement in the last 100 years,” echoed Randy Adkins, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
The rise in political partisanship has been on full display the past two years, leading to frequent deadline dramas in Congress. Only a year ago, President Barack Obama ordered the government to prepare for a federal shutdown as he and congressional Republicans bickered over an appropriations bill.
The fiscal cliff fight itself stems from another political logjam that started in the summer of 2011, when Republicans and Democrats butted heads over raising the nation’s debt ceiling. They decided to postpone an ensuing debate over spending cuts and tax increases, setting up the latest political brawl.
The White House and Senate Republicans hammered out an agreement Monday night that would stop steep tax increases and budget cuts from going into effect today.
However, the broader problem of how to solve the nation’s growing debt remains unsolved, leading to more high-stakes debates in Congress in the months and, most likely, years to come.
The three Midlands political scientists blamed the rise in gridlock on several factors, most notably the gerrymandering of congressional districts into safe partisan strongholds.Lawmakers from these districts are less inclined to compromise because their biggest re-election challenges could come from hard-liners within their own parties in primaries.
And the electorate that sent them to Washington has itself become more polarized.
A recent election analysis by the Cook Political Report shows why House Republicans have little incentive to compromise with the president: All but 15 of the 234 Republicans elected to the House last fall came from districts that Obama lost.
That climate makes it more difficult to get things done in Washington, said Mark Leeper, a professor of politics at Wayne State College.
“I have great faith in our system,” he said. “But it’s making me nervous. It’s the theater of the absurd at this point.”
The growth in partisanship can be seen on several fronts, including a dearth of moderates from either party being elected to Congress. For example, several of the Senate’s moderate members retired in 2012, including Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.
“With the disappearance of moderates, it makes brokering these deals more difficult,” Adkins said.
That leads to more officials voting along party lines, he said. And that means more confrontations and deadline dramas.
It also means more filibusters.
Filibusters once were rare. Not anymore. Between 1840 and 1900, when required to stand and talk to hold one, senators used the stalling tactic 16 times. After rule changes allowed other business to be taken up during filibusters, their use grew until the Senate saw more than 130 in 2009 and 2010 alone.
“It really is reflective of our national mood,” Leeper said. “Both sides are dug in and doctrinaire. They don’t see compromise as a virtue. They see it as selling out principles.”
Only when faced with a deadline and its consequences — like this week’s zero hour, with its tax increases and deep, automatic spending cuts — are lawmakers willing to make concessions to resolve their differences.
“Maybe that’s why we need a cliff,” Leeper said. “It has to be real before we do anything.”
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