By Joshua Marks
Pope Francis enjoys a higher approval rating among Americans than the Congress he is to address during his visit to the United States.
How unpopular is Congress? A Gallup poll released last month found that only 14 percent of U.S. adults approved of the job Congress was doing.
In a new book The Partisan Divide: Congress in Crisis, two former representatives, Republican Tom Davis of Virginia and Democrat Martin Frost of Texas, analyze how Congress has grown so gridlocked and attempt to provide solutions.
They presented their ideas on Sunday at the JCC of Northern Virginia.
Voters are behaving as if the United States had a European-style parliamentary system, electing politicians along party lines, said Davis. That is a recipe for gridlock, he explained, because the U.S. government’s structure is based on a balance of power, in which the minority party works with the majority party to pass legislation.
Parliamentary voter behavior is being driven by partisan redistricting that creates safe constituencies, putting all the pressure on the primaries over the general election, said Davis. There is no reward for voting outside of the party base.
“What it means to the average member is that you’re not a member of the minority party anymore. You’re a member of the opposition party. So instead of being a minority shareholder in government where you’re trying to make things better and mitigate bad legislation, you’re just the opposition party — and so everything is filibustered. Everything is hardball,” Davis said.
In addition to partisan redistricting, the polarization is being caused by two other large-scale factors that have increased over the past 20 years, according to Davis: the airwaves catering only to one side of the debate and the flood of big money in politics.
Davis and Frost opposed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, known as McCain-Feingold, because they said it would push contributions away from the main political parties to the fringes. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision put that money “on steroids,” said Davis.
“When you take the districts and you move them from centered, competitive districts out to the right and the left; when you have the media models going from the centered, objective news out to the right and left as successful business models; and when you take the money and move it away from parties — which have been a centering force — and the money ends up finding its way to the right and left, the middle disappears. What do you expect?” Davis explained.
Frost spoke about some of the solutions proposed in Partisan Divide.
They include Congress passing laws to mandate that every state use a nonpartisan commission to draw congressional districts and to require full disclosure of all campaign contributions, targeting unreported donations by big organizations and wealthy individuals to social welfare nonprofits, known as 501(c)(4)s. Instead of promoting social welfare as the IRS statute passed by Congress intended, these tax-exempt nonprofits pour millions of dollars into political races.