Congress’ Lost Middle Ground

By Beacon Staff

In a story posted at Slate.com, Bill Bishop gets to the bottom of why Congress has “imploded” over the last 30 years and, in effect, why its approval ratings hover around 10 percent. It’s a must read in the aftermath of the U.S. House’s bailout bill that wasn’t. The thesis: moderates no longer exist in Washington and, beyond that, lawmakers are so unfamiliar with the opposition that bipartisanship has all but disappeared.

Bishop cites a chart compiled by political scientist Keith Poole, which contends the number of moderates in the U.S. House and Senate has dropped from about half in 1950, to roughly 10 percent today. What’s left is ideologues who, after the Dow dropped 770 points on Monday when a deal to prop up the market wasn’t reached, had this to say:

Democratic Congressman David Obey accused the failure on Republican leadership, who he contends, “have lost total control over their own party.”

House Republican Leader John Boehner blamed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for making a “partisan” speech before the vote.

John McCain blamed Barack Obama, and Obama, in turn, blamed him back.

It’s obvious that these lawmakers, even when claiming to work in a bipartisan fashion, don’t get along. And Bishop argues that that is partially because they don’t spend any time with each other. Since politicians have moved out of Washington in fear of political backlash, there’s been a breakdown in the buddy system.

“Congress works best when members have mixed relationships.” Bishop writes “If a person is simply an ideological opponent, it’s easy to turn him into the enemy. But if your kids are in the same school play, that opponent is also a friend. Legislatures work most smoothly if they are slathered with some social grease.”

Politicians work hard to appear that they are men and women of the people and many now prove it by commuting from their hometowns to Washington, D.C., every week. This is a relatively new phenomenon, which has resulted in a capitol filled with lawmakers who don’t know, nor care, about members of the opposing party.

As the last week has shown, bipartisanship, even in a time of crisis, is a fanciful goal.