Gridlock Not Likely to End With 112th Congress

New members are increasingly strident, unwilling to compromise, and hail from more polarized districts.


Who could forget the wave of 85 Republicans who took the House of Representatives in 2010?

All but a handful of GOP members in the House signed Grover Norquist's "Taxpayer Protection Pledge," a promise to not raise taxes on Americans. [See How a Do-Nothing Congress is Stalling the Economy.]

In the same year, Connecticut voters elected a  liberal, Richard Blumenthal, to the U.S. Senate, while Kentucky voters cast ballots for Rand Paul, who went on to found the Senate Tea Party Caucus. As pockets around the country become more partisan, experts say, so do U.S. politics.

The country is six months from what economists are calling a "fiscal cliff," the end of the Bush-era tax cuts, the triggering of sequestration, and the expiration of the payroll tax. But as the economy teeters on the edge, Republicans and Democrats on both sides are showing their poker faces.

Even when they agree on legislation like extending the 3.4 percent student Stafford loan interest rates, neither party will compromise on a way to pay for the proposal.

The 2010 off-year elections created one of the most gridlocked legislative bodies in Congress's history, experts say. Combined with election-year politics, Congress looks to be twiddling its thumbs as constituents demand the passage of the Farm Bill, a transportation bill, and the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

John Aloysius Farrell wrote in National Journal's 2011 Vote Ratings that, "For the second year in a row but only the third time in the 30 years that National Journal has published these ratings, no Senate Democrat compiled a voting record to the right of any Senate Republican, and no Republican came down on the left of any Senate Democrat. (The first time this happened was 1999.)"

The freshman class of Republicans was partly to blame, some say.

"The new members themselves have become much more strident and tribal," says David King, director of Harvard's Program for Newly Elected Members of the U.S. Congress.

So while American voters might be hoping the 2012 freshman class brings a fresh "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" perspective to the Hill, it's unlikely that new faces will be able to fix the gridlock that has plagued the 112th. [See: Latest political cartoons]

"The troubling fact is that new blood won't solve this," says John Fortier, the director of the Democracy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Too many obstacles stand in the way. Redistricting and realignment restricted the number of "out of sorts" seats in play, Republican or Democratic districts that are represented by someone of the opposite political party.

"More seats are safely Republican and safely Democratic," Fortier points out. "We used to have people in Congress representing districts that they shouldn't have, which made them more centrists when it came time to vote."

At the beginning of the 1990s, there were more than 80 Democrats representing Republican districts, Fortier says.

But congressmen like Utah Rep. Jim Matheson, who has earned the distinction as the Democrat representing the country's most Republican district, are rare political animals today. And senators who reach across the aisle, like Maine Republican Olympia Snowe, who also represents a Democratic state, are retiring.

"You can count them on both hands," Fortier says.

Harvard's King sees the silver lining in that general elections generally turn out more moderate voters than midterms, potentially yielding a slightly more middle-of-the-road group of legislators.

"You don't have just the wingnuts showing up this year," King says. "I expect 2011 to be more bipartisan than the new members in 2010, but they are still more polarized than we saw in 1992."

Today's leaders are bread out of a different mold.

King says Congress doesn't make people more gridlocked, they come programmed that way.

"Polarization isn't simply a problem in Washington. It is created in the grass roots," King says. "It begins when they become activists on the local level. The rewards in American politics go to those who are strident, stand up for their values, and are not willing to compromise those. "