The Obamacare/government funding debacle has again focused the country's attention on the considerable differences between the Obama Democrats and Boehner Republicans. But one of the primary misunderstandings regarding this latest titanic struggle concerns the popular but misplaced notion that Congress is dysfunctional because of politics.
I refer to the popular caricature of Republicans and Democrats sitting around all day with nothing to do other than plot evil deeds against each other. This simplistic notion might appear accurate to those who wish to throw all the bums out. But it begs a far more accurate (and illuminating) explanation: The respective parties remain in fundamental disagreement about what ails our country.
In other words, it's about ideas — very different, but honestly held — that (in many cases) do not easily lend themselves to compromise.
Past columns have examined the whys and wherefores leading to this state of affairs, most importantly the willingness of state legislatures to create greater numbers of "safe" (and more ideologically driven) congressional seats through redistricting. Simply put, safe seat members are generally immune to competitive considerations. Almost without exception, they win with comfortable margins which further fortify their convictions — and votes. "Deal making" is not an especially valued (nor required) part of their political skill set.
For local context, compare recent redistricting in dark blue Maryland to dark red Texas. (Seems there are a lot of comparisons to Texas going on these days.) Not so long ago, Maryland maintained an equal number of Democrats and Republicans in our Congressional delegation due in large part to the accommodation Gov. William Donald Schaefer afforded Rep. Helen Delich Bentley in the redistricting of 1990. Yours truly was one of the four Republicans, along with Connie Morella, Wayne Gilchrest and Roscoe Bartlett. That is until the powers that be (read: Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller) reversed course and redrew Congressional boundary lines that have now produced a seven-to-one Democratic majority.
Similarly, the former safe haven for House Democrats known as the Texas Congressional delegation was transformed into a decidedly Republican majority after Republican leaders in the state legislature did their partisan line drawing thing during the last two rounds of redistricting. Today, GOP members outnumber Democrats two-to-one in Texas.
The net result of these line drawing exercises in formerly competitive states is a wipeout of northeastern Republican moderates and southern conservative Democrats — once formidable voting blocs within their respective parties. (Indeed, the voting blocs that helped produce the mega Reagan and Clinton era budget deals.) All of which has led to the permanent war footing between today's arch conservative GOP and hyper-progressive Democratic Party. That these respective bases would have difficulty agreeing on the time of day should come as no surprise. But today's stakes are about far more important issues confronting our country.
Major story lines over the past two weeks provide context:
•A Democratic Senate vowed to protect Obamacare against various House passed measures aimed at defunding the program. President Barack Obama and Majority Leader Harry Reid promised no negotiations over Obamacare. A determined GOP House repeatedly adopted different versions of "defund/slow down" Obamacare even in the face of a decidedly unpopular government shutdown.
•The Republican House passed a food stamp reform bill (on a straight party line vote) that cuts funding and builds work requirements back into the program. House Democrats said "no way, no how" to renewed work requirements (even for able-bodied recipients) and offered steadfast opposition to anything other than minor funding cuts.
The previous five years have seen similar confrontations. Bitter and often acrimonious fights over Syria; school vouchers; living wages; debt limits; illegal immigration; gay marriage; unionism; fracking; gun control; welfare reform; entitlement reform; and $17 trillion of public debt have marked a historically dysfunctional time in our politics.
These are but a sampling of our most intractable issues. Today's politics are chock full of divisive conflicts. And the country appears split down the middle on many of them.
Odds are there will be precious little progress over the course of the next year. Certainly the name calling during the Obamacare defunding circus has not helped matters. Democrats will likely continue to bemoan the obstructionist Republicans; the GOP will steadfastly oppose the president's progressive agenda. The pundits will pronounce a plague on both your houses (although most assuredly siding with the president over Obamacare funding). Approval ratings for Congress will continue to dip into single digits. And relatively few will discern that all of this is the natural result of the divided government the people voted for during the last two election cycles.
Winston Churchill once lamented, "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
He quite easily could have been describing the state of American politics, circa 2013.
And, don't forget: A really controversial issue (raising the debt ceiling) is up in a matter of days. Should be great political theater.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around" — a book about national politics. His email is email@example.com.