The tyranny of the extremes

It’s sort of like President Bush’s approval ratings in 2007 and 2008. Every time you wondered if they could possibly get any lower, they dropped again. The same is true today with Congress. Its approval ratings are in the single digits, 9% to be exact, according to pollster PPP. They must have a sense of humor at PPP because they also asked the public the popularity about all sorts of things, to get a gauge on just how unpopular Congress is. Head lice are 48% more popular than Congress. A colonoscopy, which I have to endure in February, is 27% more popular than Congress. Even cockroaches edge out Congress by 2%. The good news is that Congress is 35% more popular than North Korea, and 39% more popular than meth labs.

This is particularly amazing because most Americans simply tune out Congress. Most have no idea who their representative is in Congress, which is not too surprising since in most election years less than fifty percent of voters bother to vote. Heck, most Americans are so geographically impaired they cannot find France on a globe or can state with reasonable certainty what states border their own state. In fact, most Americans slept through their civics classes. It’s amazing they know what Congress is. And yet even institutions like Congress can get attention by the public. It happens when either they do things really right or really wrong. Americans are almost unanimous: Congress is not doing its job properly. Right now, it appears we could fire everyone but Senator Mitch McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden. They were the two that brokered the latest “fiscal cliff” legislation, which really didn’t solve any fundamental problems, but did allow us to put it off a couple of more months. They were the only two interested in seriously negotiating.

And yet we just had an election in which 91% of incumbents who chose to run for reelection won. How is it possible then that only 9% of Americans approve of Congress? There are lots of reasons but it amounts to states deciding to create congressional districts that are highly partisan. The result is that the legislator is likely to be highly partisan, which means they are either very right wing or very left wing. The true endangered species in the House is the moderate.

So, if you are a moderate and have this notion that maybe Congress should meet in the middle somewhere, unless you live in California you are out of luck. California is the exception this year. Its state legislature decided that its congressional districts would be drawn in a non-partisan fashion. The result has been interesting to watch. While the state traditionally leans Democratic, there have been a number of very close races between Republican and Democratic candidates. This happens when the votes of moderates can count proportionately. It allows changes in demographics to be expressed in the state’s congressional representatives. More typical is states like Pennsylvania, which voted 52 percent for President Obama state-wide, and yet only seven of its 18 congressional representatives are Democratic. This is because Republicans control the state government, and drew highly partisan districts that favored Republicans and marginalized Democrats.

In short, at least in the House of Representatives legislators simply are not representative of the population of the state at large, and thus the real will of the people is not being expressed. If the House of Representatives were functioning the way it should, it would normally mirror results in the presidential race. In short, the House would generally be closely divided. It is likely that if congressional districts were not drawn in a partisan manner (gerrymandered) it would probably now have a narrow Democratic majority. In addition, the House would likely be far less polarized. There would probably only be a handful of representatives with Tea Party leanings. The bulk of legislators would be political moderates, and they’d be quite comfortable with the idea of compromise or voting based on consensus. Necessary legislation would get passed. Congress’s approval ratings would probably be above fifty percent.

The real tragedy with gerrymandering is that no one wins unless one party controls all branches of Congress and the White House. That situation is unnatural and when it occurs the dominant political party will tend to fracture. This is what happened when Democrats controlled Congress and the White House between 2009 and 2010. When you elect extremes and they control different houses of Congress, you get Congress with nine percent approval ratings. Extreme liberals find no reason to find common ground with tea partiers. And tea partiers, who vowed never to raise a tax rate, find no reason to find common ground with liberals. Moreover, since everyone is wedded to his or her own ideology, no one will budge. Dr. Seuss mirrored our present Congress is his story on the Zax.

I am a liberal that frequents the liberal blog DailyKos. There are constant petitions to tell Congress or the Obama Administration not to compromise on anything. This includes changing Social Security benefits or the retirement age, or any changes to Medicare. Sometimes I sign these petitions and sometimes I don’t. I agree that Social Security is solvent, so it doesn’t need major changes. The same cannot be said for Medicare. It needs major reforms and is the major reason we even have a budget crisis. Something has to change with Medicare. I don’t sign these petitions, not because I don’t want seniors to have health care, but because some compromise is absolutely necessary. It must be fixed even if the fix is painful, providing both sides give a little. This game cannot be won if no one refuses to budge. Otherwise the best result will be more debt than the country can afford and overpriced care. How is this being a good steward of the nation?

What can be done to get a functional Congress again? Unfortunately, this is one of these problems with no easy solution. It’s easy to say that states should create congressional districts that are non-partisan, but it appears it cannot be required through federal legislation. At the federal level, it should require a constitutional amendment, which means you would need to convince two thirds of a highly partisan Congress to vote to sponsor this legislation. That won’t happen. The other process, never tried, is for two thirds of the states to call a constitutional convention, draft the amendment and then get three quarters of the states agree on it.

Of course each state legislature on its own could do what California did, but they won’t because they are looking at their parochial interests, not the national interest. One creative solution I have heard would be for two states that historically are of different political stripes and have similar number of representatives in Congress to each pass laws saying that the districts in their state would be nonpartisan if the other state agreed to the same deal. That way one state does not “lose” because another state refuses to create nonpartisan districts.

Regardless, it looks like nine percent Congressional approval ratings are likely to endure for quite a while, unless disgust at Congress becomes so visceral that citizens protest en masse at their state capitals when their legislature is in session. Which means, as I said some time ago, that more national dysfunction lies dead ahead.

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