Ruth Marcus
Ruth Marcus
Opinion Writer

The ‘mischiefs of faction’

First came the plans, then came the criticism. To be expected — except the criticism came from ideological allies.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid released his debt-ceiling plan — and the liberal group MoveOn.org pounced, complaining that the Nevada Democrat’s proposal was flawed because it did not insist on a “balanced approach that ends outrageous tax breaks and loopholes for big corporations and the rich.”

Ruth Marcus

An editorial writer specializing in politics, the budget and other domestic issues, she also writes a weekly column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.

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The GOP fires its arrows in the debt debate.

The GOP fires its arrows in the debt debate.

Also, the group warned, the supercommittee to recommend further cuts was a Trojan horse for gutting entitlement benefits. “Any plan that includes a back door to cut those vital programs,” it thundered, “is just as unacceptable as one that puts the cuts upfront.”

House Speaker John Boehner unveiled his debt-ceiling plan — and the conservative Cut, Cap and Balance Coalition pounced, complaining that the Ohio Republican’s approach was flawed because it did not hew to every jot and tittle of the program: The guaranteed vote on a balanced-budget amendment would not be linked to lifting the debt ceiling. And the amendment might — horrors! — allow a tax increase with less than a two-thirds majority.

Also, the group warned, the supercommittee was a Trojan horse for raising taxes. “History has shown that such commissions, while well-intentioned, make it easier to raise taxes than to institute enduring budget reforms,” it thundered.

With friends like this, who needs the other party?

Howls from implacable purists and relentless interest groups on both sides are nothing new. The “mischiefs of faction,” as James Madison observed, have been present since the nation’s founding. Tending to the base is like weeding the garden, a chore as endless as it is tedious. The squeaky lobby gets the stroking.

Yet the current standoff illustrates the troubling reality of modern-day interest-group politics. The mechanisms of instantaneous communication — a 24/7 news cycle, the organizing potential of social networking — enhance the voice of an angry minority.

Madison argued that the size of a larger republic would help insulate it from the worst instincts of politicians and their supporters. “The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States,” he assured readers in Federalist No. 10. Madison didn’t have to deal with government-by-Twitter. He didn’t imagine representatives pledging their way into paralysis.

The cable networks offer constant testimony to this pernicious phenomenon. In one commercial, a threatening trio of seniors demand of lawmakers, “What were you thinking?” in passing cuts in hospital reimbursements. The ad’s sponsor, the Coalition to Protect America’s Healthcare, is a group of, you guessed it, hospitals. Their Web site brags of $457 billion in “reductions avoided” since 2000 — a return of $30,000 for every dollar invested in the lobbying campaign.

In another, a group called Ending Spending instructs viewers, “Contact Congress and tell them we cannot afford any more debt.” This would be the same Congress whose Republican House overwhelmingly passed a budget plan that piled up trillions in new debt.

In a third, a guitar-playing grandpa jams with a teenager as a narrator urges, “Stand with us and tell Congress: Don’t cut Social Security and Medicare. Because we pay into these programs with every paycheck.”

This environment breeds stalemate. Add in the rise of computer-assisted gerrymandering, which drives the debate to extremes, simultaneously favoring the election of those on the ideological fringes and deterring incumbents who might be tempted to stray from ideological orthodoxy. The result is a House whose members are driven to cater to the base rather than secure the middle.

Meanwhile, the size of the stakes magnifies the degree of intransigence on both sides. The current debate is not about trimming this small program here and nipping that tax break there. It’s about the fundamental direction of the government for years to come.

The toxic combination helps produce — well, just look at the front page.

There is a significant cluster of politicians in both parties who would like to escape the iron grip of reflexive factionalism. There is a yearning among lawmakers to rise to the seriousness of the moment.

You can see it in the dozens of senators who flocked to a meeting at which the Gang of Six outlined their bipartisan, balanced debt-reduction plan. You can see it in Boehner’s short-lived flirtation with responsibility.

You can see it, but you may have a hard time seeing a way out. Not of the immediate impasse, but of the larger gridlock. Madison would be aghast.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com

 
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