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Pure Onsense

Friendly Fire

Scott Zuke

(4/2013) A political science professor once told my class that the higher one climbs in political leadership--or any management position, for that matter--the more time one spends praising others and receiving blame. The accuracy of that statement is abundantly clear for members of Congress, who would probably feel a great relief if their jobs were merely thankless during the last few years of cyclical fiscal crises that have driven their approval ratings into the ground.

Whether or not people know what "Sequestration" is by now, chances are that they are angry about it and so frustrated by Congress's inability to resolve the disputes it has created for itself that they are giving up on reasonable solutions and grasping instead for poetic justice. An extremely common suggestion has been to dock the pay of members of Congress until they come to a compromise. It's unlikely this would achieve much, but currently the Constitution's 27th Amendment forbids Congress from tampering with its own pay anyway. (That hasn't stopped the idea's populist appeal, though, so John Barrow, a Democrat from Georgia, went so far as to propose a change to the amendment so that it only restricts Congress from voting itself pay increases, but not decreases.) Meanwhile, Congressional offices could still receive budget cuts, but all that does is hit the underpaid staffers, just grateful to have landed a salaried position after months or years of jumping between unpaid internships--not to mention the constituents they serve. That won't really satisfy anyone.

These days Representatives are routinely shamed for acting like petulant children, but that comparison is misleading. For 'accountability' to actually mean something, voters have to look beyond the politicians' public personae and understand the political forces that push them into behaving the way they do.

For decades the balance of power in Washington has been shifting in favor of special interest groups who use member fees to pump huge sums of money into influencing elections. That's not new, but what is interesting of late is that some of these groups no longer just spend their money backing one party's candidates over the other's, but instead are threatening to back primary challengers to their own party's sitting members in retaliation for any behavior perceived to be too moderate.

During budget negotiations a few months ago some Democrats, hoping to end a bitter stalemate, offered a relatively minor concession to the Republicans, who have sought to cut unnecessary spending on Social Security and Medicare by recalculating annual inflation so that the benefits seniors receive would more accurately reflect increases to their cost of living. Senior advocacy groups leaped into action and mobilized to put intense pressure on the Democrats not to "throw seniors under the bus." One group, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) openly threatened to back primary challengers to any incumbent Democrats who backed the offer. Today the plan is still extremely controversial, and prominent Democrats, including Maryland's Chris Van Hollen, strongly oppose it, limiting their bargaining options.

The strategy has popped up even more frequently on the other side of the aisle. The conservative Club for Growth has threatened primary challenges against any Republican incumbents they believe to be compromising on pure conservative principles. The group even launched a website called "Primary My Congressman!" featuring nine Representatives it pegs as "Republicans in name only," or R.I.N.O.'s.

"…In districts that are heavily Republican," the website explains, "there are literally dozens of missed opportunities to elect real fiscal conservatives to Congress — not more 'moderates' who will compromise with Democrats to just increase spending and grow government a little bit slower than usual."

If you're looking for one of the big sources of partisan gridlock in D.C., look no further. These special interest groups are dedicating their time and money to turning "moderate" into a dirty word and ensuring that compromise is next to impossible.

Like I said, this kind of influence by such groups is not new, and has been strongly linked to greater partisanship since the 90s. It'd be an oversight, however, not to see some of the Tea Party's handiwork in this trend. Whether the Republican establishment didn't know what they were getting themselves into when they worked to co-opt to the Tea Party movement, or just didn't care, the resulting fissure in their party has become increasingly public. And for now, the bulk of popular enthusiasm seems to be favoring the insurgent, uncompromising far-right over the more moderate establishment.

To be clear, the same divisive forces are at work in the Democratic party, and they could become just as problematic in the future. The difference for now is that, by the will of the voters, the Republicans are the minority party, but are not acting like one. The Tea Party and groups like the Club For Growth are not content to admit defeat and work towards rebuilding their base of support for the future. They see the best solution to losing ground to be going to even further ideological extremes, and they sell this vision to diehard supporters like it's never been tried before, when in fact, they are the very roadblock to a resolution that they accuse other members of Congress of being.

There aren't any easy solutions to this problem. Some political scientists argue that the proliferation of interest groups that clog the gears of Congress and uphold an increasingly untenable fiscal structure that benefits a few at the expense of the many is the inevitable result of a flaw in our form of governance. That's biting off a lot more than I can chew here, but getting a little closer to understanding why our elected officials are stuck in the mud on Sequestration and other fiscal matters is a useful endeavor. Sure, they'll still get the blame either way, as befits their position, but there's more than enough to go around to the lesser known players standing in the way of progress.

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