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A Government Relations Overview: Why Canít They Get Anything Done in Washington?

- January 2014

Any analysis of government in Washington today, particularly any report attempting to forecast what Americans can expect from their government in the months ahead, has to acknowledge that Washington seems irreparably broken – the partisan divisions seem to have deepened so much that almost nothing can get done.

So why is Washington so partisan and divided? There’s plenty of blame to go around: deep ideological differences between the political parties with each controlling one house of Congress, a president pursuing a liberal agenda and remarkably disengaged from the legislative process, and an intensely polarized country. Part of the problem is that gerrymandering of Congressional districts has created too many “safe” seats in Congress, contributing to the rise of the more radicalized conservatives in the Republican conference in the House. Many GOP Representatives fear – many are already facing – primary challenges by Tea-Party-type conservatives, who attack them for any vote seen as a compromise of conservative principles.

Fearing a conservative primary challenge, some members of the House GOP caucus will oppose anything but often-unattainable “pure” proposals. (See the separate staff report on “Congress, Continuing Resolutions and the Continuing Crisis.”) That intransigent conservative bloc within the GOP conference has often denied House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) the majority vote he needs to pass legislation. Ironically, their actions often result in less conservative policy: by denying the Speaker a majority vote, they weaken him and strip him of the leverage he must have to negotiate effectively with the Democrat Senate and White House.

While primary threats on the Democrat side are not nearly as great, the many Democrats elected from very safe liberal districts and states are similarly less inclined to compromise. These safe-seat Democrat legislators militantly call for more spending, higher taxes and bigger government – because those demands are consistent with their voters’ priorities – and vocally object when the President appears willing to negotiate with the House GOP majority.

But Congressional Democrats have little need to fear that President Obama will give too much away in negotiations with the GOP; White House negotiations with Republicans in Congress have been virtually non-existent. Even conversations from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other have been rare.

As the Boston Globe reported last October 14th: In his State of the Union address in January 2010, the President promised monthly meetings with Hill leaders of both parties, “to ‘show the American people that we can do it together … I know you can’t wait,’ he added, as members of Congress laughed. But wait they did.”

The President did not meet one-on-one with Speaker Boehner for another year and a half; the President has met individually with Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) only twice. Even meetings with the bipartisan Congressional Leadership soon became sporadic.

So compromise and cooperation in Washington went the way of the dinosaur. But to find the cause of the gridlock, you have to also look well outside the Washington “beltway.” The American public is as divided as is Washington.

In a May, 2013 NBC-WSJ poll, respondents were asked to decide which of two statements better represented their views:

“Government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people,” or “Government is doing too many things better left to business and individuals.”

Forty-eight (48) percent agreed with the first statement; 48 percent agreed with the second.

A recent Gallup poll asked, “Which political party do you think will do a better job of keeping the economy prosperous?”

Forty-three (43) percent said Republicans; 42 percent said Democrats.

A newspaper story in mid-September reported on a poll asking respondents whether or not the debt limit should be increased:

  • 46 percent said yes; 43 said no.
  • 62 percent of Democrats said yes; 61 percent of Republicans said no.
  • 48 percent of Independents said yes; 46 percent said no.

While those numbers paint a clear picture of a divided country, what they do not show – and what is perhaps far more significant – is the intensity with which both conservative and liberal Americans view the issues today. One doesn’t need any public opinion surveys to know that public discourse today is suffering from overheated rhetoric and hyperbole, and it is the activists on the ideological right and left who most significantly impact Washington.

In a Washington Post story last October 5th, Dan Balz reported:

Some may rightly blame politicians in Washington for behaving badly, but in reality the clashes in the nation’s capital reflect conflicting attitudes and values held by politically active, rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats across the country…The bonds that once helped produce political consensus have gradually eroded, replaced by competing camps that live in parallel universes, have sharply divergent world views and express more distrust of opponents than they did decades ago. Many activists describe the stakes in apocalyptic terms.

So Washington clearly is not solely to blame for gridlock since elected officials are reflecting the divisions in the country when they vote the way their polarized constituencies demand. But elected officials surely share the blame; acquiescing to the demands of their more militant constituents encourages that militancy and does nothing to mitigate the country’s divisions.

The votes of conservatives in the House and Senate against any measure seen by the more conservative activists as inconsistent with their pure ideology strengthens the Tea Party and invites their continued demand that elected officials oppose compromise or face primary challenges.

Liberal Congressional Democrats reinforce the demands of their activist constituents by militantly opposing any real reform of our bankrupt entitlement programs and demanding ever-increasing taxes to fund an ever-growing government, making needed entitlement reform much more difficult to achieve.

And the President has similarly chosen to accommodate his liberal base rather than attempt to unite the country as he once promised to do. As the Boston Globe reported last October: As President, Mr. Obama has never visited the red states of Utah, Arkansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, South Carolina; has visited only once Kentucky, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming. Overall, he spent fewer than four days in states he lost in 2012, and an average of 23 days in each state he won. In contrast, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton visited all 50 states; G.W. Bush skipped only Vermont, which had called for his impeachment.

It’s hard to know whether the country or the politicians in Washington are more to blame for the deep political and ideological divisions, but it is clear that those partisan divisions will remain with us at the very least until this November’s elections, and more likely at least until the 2016 presidential election.

As the Washington Post story last October reported:

Today, there is almost no overlap between the voting behavior of the most conservative Democrats in the House and the most liberal Republicans. That’s in part because there are few -moderate-to-conservative Democrats and -moderate-to-liberal Republicans left in the chamber. . . The absence of a center in today’s politics significantly complicates coalition building. `How do you build a coalition from the center out when there’s no one in the middle?’ [Emory University political scientist Alan] Abramowitz asked. `Reaching across the aisle means reaching pretty far.