The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

John Dingell wants Congress to work together again. That so isn’t going to happen.

In a speech announcing his retirement from Congress after 29(!) full terms, Michigan Rep. John Dingell made a plea for a bipartisan re-awakening from his colleagues. He said:

This Congress has been a great disappointment to everyone, members, media, citizens, and our country. Little has been done in this Congress, with 57 bills passed into law. That is not Heinz packaged varieties, it is the laws passed by the Congress. There will be much blaming and finger pointing back and forth, but the Members share fault, much fault; the people share much fault, for encouraging a disregard of our country, our Congress, and our governmental system. It is my hope that this session of Congress, on which we have now begun, will reflect on these important ideas and understand that we are all in this together.....let us work together. What unites us is far greater than what divides us. No President should have to tell a Congress that if that august body cannot do its task he will do it by executive order.

With all due respect to Congressman Dingell, that just isn't going to happen. Washington -- and the who, how and why people elected their representatives to this city -- has fundamentally changed since Dingell first roamed the halls of Congress way back in 1955.  Here's how.

1. The biggest electoral threat to most Members is in a primary.  Less than 18 percent of the entire U.S. House won with 55 percent or less of the vote in 2012.  Just 7.5 percent of the House won with 52 percent of the vote or less. There are simply very few members of the House who have any sort of incentive to work across the aisle during their time in Congress. In fact, because of the desire for ideological purity -- especially within the Republican House rank -- there is a disincentive to be regarded as a GOP Member who actively works with Democrats. (Being labeled a RINO -- Republican In Name Only -- makes you persona non grata for many within the base.) Staying as close to your political home base as possible is your best chance of staying in Congress these days.

2. Congress has been effectively sorted, politically speaking. The days of a Democrat like Gene Taylor representing a strongly conservative district in Mississippi or a Republican like Jim Leach holding a Democratic-leaning southeastern Iowa seat are largely gone.  Thanks to line-drawing technology that allows lawmakers to draw congressional districts on a house-by-house basis, a series of decennial redistricting processes that have, largely, protected incumbents of both parties and a self-sorting of the public into more homogenous communities, there are very few mismatched members and districts. At present, there are only nine Democratic Members of Congress who represent seats that Mitt Romney carried in the 2012 presidential election; two of those nine -- Jim Matheson in Utah and Mike McIntyre in North Carolina -- are retiring at the end of this Congress.  Of the 232 House Republicans, only 16 presents districts that President Obama won in 2012. That makes 25 seats -- or roughly five percent of the House -- who hold districts won by the opposing party's presidential candidate.

3. The price tag of running for Congress is SO high now.  In 2012, the Center for Responsive Politics estimated that the average winning candidate for U.S. House spent $1.5 million to get that victory. House incumbents spent upwards of $3 million. As recently as 1994, that number was under $1 million.

Raising all that money takes time. Lots and lots and lots of time. And the more time is spent raising money, the less time is spent legislating or doing the sorts of after-hours hanging out -- for lack of a better word -- that is often credited with providing the political grease to make bipartisan lawmaking work.

4. Air travel is everywhere.  In 1958, 38 million boarded planes.  In 2012, 3 billion people did the same. The ubiquity of airplane travel means that the vast majority of House members commute to and from their home districts nowadays, even if those districts are on the west coast.  That means shorter Congressional weeks and less downtime spent in Washington with colleagues.  The chances of getting to know members not from your state or in your party is basically 0 percent.

5. These are historically partisan times. Every age thinks it's either the best or worst at everything. But, as we have documented in this space many times before, every measure we can find suggests that we actually are at a moment of unmatched partisan polarization. Here's our favorite chart to make that point -- a collection of Gallup data showing that of the 12 most polarizing years in modern presidential history, 10 of them have come in the last decade.