As politicians in both parties pat themselves on the backs for averting yet another government shutdown after a deal was reached Monday evening on disaster funding, it’s instructive look at what that fight tells us about Congress, comity and the 2012 election.
That Congress was willing to even raise the specter of a government shutdown — if a deal wasn’t reached on the disaster money the funding mechanism for the federal government would have run out on Friday — so soon after a fight over the debt-ceiling that proved politically disastrous for both parties tells us two important things.
1. The two parties in Congress don’t agree on much of anything. It’s hard to see the FEMA funding fight as anything but a debate on principle given the paltry amount of money at stake. (To be clear: We would gladly take the $2.6 billion in question but when compared to the totality of spending by the federal government, it’s a paucity.)
What 2011 has proven is that the two parties carry widely divergent views about nearly every issue but especially the right way to turn around the nation's struggling economy.
Republicans see cutting spending and tackling entitlements like Social Security and Medicare as the right path and anything involving raising taxes as a non-starter. Democrats advocate a combination of spending cuts and tax increases with any major changes to entitlement programs regarded as anathema.
House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) summed up the chasm between the two sides nicely following his speech at the Economic Club of Washington earlier this month.
“While we have a good relationship, sometimes the conversations that we have would be like two groups of people from two different planets who barely understand each other,” Boehner said of President Obama and Democrats. “And I don’t mean it in a derogatory way, but there’s a reason why you’d have two major political parties with big disagreements.”
There’s lot and lots of reasons for the widely disparate views the two parties in Congress now hold but one major one is that the 2010 election not only elected dozens of tea-party aligned fiscal conservatives but also saw the defeat of scads of moderate and conservative Democrats — a reality that means the two parties are now far more grouped at the far end of their own ideological spectrums making deal-making less likely.
2. Both parties are waiting until the 2012 election for a sign from voters. Politicians are a reactive species. (While most people deride pols for being reactive, any job in which your career is entirely dependent on the will of the people would probably make anyone reactive.) And, politicians can be forgiven for wondering just what the heck the American public wants right now.
In 2008, voters seemed to send a clear mandate to President Obama as he won 53 percent of the national vote and 365 electoral votes, a massive victory by the 50-50 standards of the past decade. But, two years later, voters handed Obama and his party a major setback — giving Republicans control of the U.S. House and delivering sweeping victories to the GOP at the state and local level.
(One stat that tells you everything you need to know about the difficulty of predicting what the electorate wants: In the 2006 midterm election, independents went for Democratic House candidates by 18 points; four years later they went for Republican candidates by 19 points.)
Almost a year into divided government in Washington, it’s no more clear what the public wants. Congress is at record low job approval numbers but so is President Obama. Large swaths of the public see politics as fundamentally broken and are rapidly losing faith (if they haven’t already lost it) in government’s ability to fix it.
A new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll showed 56 percent saying that Republican policies will move the country in the wrong direction and 53 percent saying the same of the policies advocated by Democrats in Congress. Hello no-win situation!
So, do voters want more government? Less? Something less clear cut and more situational when it comes to government’s proper role? The truth is that politicians just don’t know the answer. And they are all waiting until the 2012 election for a final — or at least newer — verdict from voters.
Add up points number one and two and you get the death of bipartisanship — at least until the 113th Congress convenes in 2013. (Worth reading: New York magazine’s Frank Rich on how bipartisanship is way overrated.)
There is absolutely no incentive — and hasn’t been for several years — for a politician (of either party) to step outside of their partisan comfort zone and reach across the aisle since it’s not clear that anyone would reach back or that’s even what voters want.
“The mere notion of bipartisanship appears to be dead right now,” said Jef Pollock, a New York based Democratic consultant. “We’re already in campaign season. The window for bipartisanship has come and gone.... we may need a good election now to tip the scales into solutions.”
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