Hey Voters, Congressional Gridlock Is Kind of Your Fault

Congress is divided because voters let it be that way.

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Congress is divided, and approved of by only 10 percent of Americans, because voters let it be that way.

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You got what you asked for America.

A majority of you might prefer lice and cockroaches to Congress. But there was an election in 2012 and the historic gridlock in the 113th Congress is a direct result of the levers voters pulled last November.

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Americans had a shot to fire all 435 members of the House of Representatives in November. Instead, voters cast ballots to retain more than 90 percent of them.

"Voters keep sending these types of people to the Congress," says Allan Lichtman, a political pundit and distinguished professor of history at American University. "There are all kinds of structural issues too, but a lot of responsibility has to be put on the voters."

As proof of this phenomenon, some House members, including Reps. Frederica Wilson, a Democrat, and Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican – both of whom are from Florida – ran unopposed in the last general election.

While, fewer than 10 percent of Americans approve of Congress, Americans give high marks to their own representatives. A Gallup poll in May showed nearly 50 percent of voters approved of their district's representatives.

So what gives?

As it turns out it's not just Congress that is deeply divided in its political views, the country as a whole is becoming more and more polarized.

Republican strongholds are getting more conservative, and Democratic districts are increasingly becoming more liberal as time goes on. But it's not just redistricting alone that is causing the problem.. According to the Cook Political report, Americans are "self sorting".

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A Pew Research Report earlier this year showed voters don't just see themselves as part of a political party, they increasingly identify with an extreme ideology within their party. The report showed that 68 percent of individuals who identified themselves as Republicans saw themselves as conservatives, a 9 point jump since 2000. And 39 percent of Democrats identified as liberals, an increase from the 27 percent who saw themselves as liberal in 2000. The irony is that the most ideological voters also have the potential for the greatest impact on the process. Everyone gets one vote, but the more ideological voters donate money and campaign on behalf of a candidate, they encourage their representatives to take a more partisan stance.

"A small number of voters, those who dominate primaries and caucuses in the presidential and congressional election have the strongest influence on the process," says Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.

Democrats are increasingly representing racially diverse districts in urban pockets of the country. Republicans have control, meanwhile, of more rural, white districts. In the 113th Congress, Republican hold 174 districts with fewer than 30 percent minority voters. Democrats have built their majorities on districts with more than 50 percent minority voters.

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"When you look at the map, it is interesting how much geography and demographics play into a person's political philosophy," says Michael DiNiscia, the associate director of the Brademas Center for the Study of Congress at New York University.

Pundits argue, however, that it is not all the voters' faults.

"That is where leadership comes in," says Ornstein "The lion share of the blame here goes to leaders within Congress who have made really conscious decisions that they don't want policies to pass or they want to sabotage policies, like the president's health care law, that have passed."

Ornstein says Republican leaders and conservative PACs like Club for Growth and Heritage Action have deepened the divisions in the House and the Senate.

"It is the thesis of Bob Woodward, that if only he had wined and dined people in Congress more, everything would be better," he says of Woodward's remarks that broken relationships in Washington are partly to blame for the gridlock. "When you have people making decisions on Inaugural eve that the best approach to take is to block any legislation then having them up for a drink at the White House or having them spend a weekend at Camp David isn't really going to make a difference."