Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week, we’re talking about polarization in politics. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Jim Marshall, a Democrat, represented Georgia in the House of Representatives from 2003 to 2011. He is a former president and chief executive of the United States Institute of Peace and a member of the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame.

Suppose Congress heeded Niebuhr’s serenity prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” Short of amending the Constitution to establish a parliamentary system of government, how would Congress seek to cure our current legislative dysfunction?

AD

It would begin by accepting that there are many polarizing forces it either cannot change at all, change much or change quickly. Perhaps the most insidious and current of these is the increasing fragmentation of “news” and information sources pushing wildly different views of fundamental facts and science, let alone moral and political issues. Americans now can easily find television and radio programs, websites, opinion pieces, blogs and other “authorities” that reinforce and comfort them in almost any belief, however bizarre. This significantly heightens public and political extremism arising from age-old rubbing points such as income and wealth disparity, economic insecurity, bigotry, religious zealotry or uncertainties about national economic and security priorities.

AD

These are polarizing forces Congress can’t change quickly, if ever. Certainly it should not serenely accept many of them, but its focus for resolving its dysfunction should be on things it can and should change fairly quickly. Congress can and should change Congress.

The House, not the Senate, is the primary driver of congressional dysfunction. Indeed, throughout my tenure in Congress, I routinely described the Senate as adult supervision for the House. It is the House that must change. It needs many more centrists and at least one rule change.

AD

The House has far too many “safe” seats, ones often gerrymandered to virtually assure the election of only a Democrat or only a Republican. This is the principal driver of our political gridlock. House members holding these safe seats constantly talk about being “primaried,” a word not yet in common use. For them to hold their seats and for their staffs to keep their jobs, these members cannot stray from their hard left or right agendas, meaning that extreme positions continue and compromise is impossible.

AD

Conversely, the House has too few unsafe seats, ones that are competitive for either party and thus typically occupied by more centrist members. Since there are so few of them, these unsafe seats are often “targeted” in the general election. Enormous sums must be raised to rebuff attacks. Plenty of outside money weighs in, even more lately with the advent of relatively anonymous super PACs. As a result, these unsafe, centrist seats tend to shift back and forth between the parties. That’s politically healthy. But the safe seats don’t shift. In fact, those holding safe seats can have very long tenures provided they don’t stray politically and otherwise mind their manners. That’s politically unhealthy.

Since the general election turnover is almost always in the middle, centrists (whether Democrats or Republicans) are often junior in Congress. Their staffs are typically junior as well. Why risk working for someone at risk every cycle? So the more polarizing members, those to the further left and right, typically enjoy three legislative advantages: more experience, more seniority and the most competent, networked, effective and ideologically extreme staffs. Hence little centrist legislation is even proposed, and hardly any makes it to the House floor for debate and vote. Term limits would lessen this unfortunate discrepancy, as would loosening the rules limiting legislation approved for debate and voting. Sadly, the latter might be harder to obtain than the former.

AD

If Congress was going to do the right thing to lessen polarization, it would have already used its constitutional authority to encourage or direct states to draw competitive congressional districts, even if that takes a little principled gerrymandering to overcome residential self-segregation along party lines. Doing so would dramatically increase the number of House centrists or near centrists from each party, and greatly lessen House polarization and the legislative gridlock it causes.

AD

But Congress, at least for now, will not do the right thing on this issue. Addressing the problem will continue to be a state-by-state task until enough momentum develops that Congress finally takes heed of the serenity prayer and changes what it can and should.

Explore these other perspectives:

AD
AD
AD