Two former members of Congress — one Republican, the other Democrat — spoke about the polarization of today’s Congress on Sunday at Temple Rodef Shalom in McLean.
Martin Frost said he and Thomas Davis never went “head-to-head” while in office, despite being from opposing parties.
But there is one thing they see eye-to-eye on.
“We were both moderates in our own party, so we bemoaned the fact that Congress has gotten so polarized and it’s so hard to get anything done,” said Frost, a Texas Democrat.
Davis, a Republican who represented Northern Virginia from 1995 to 2008, told the audience of 100 that the first thing that contributed to polarization in Congress was the rise of the single-party district. A full 80 percent of congressional districts are safe for the party of the incumbent, he said.
With the general election a foregone conclusion, many politicians focus on winning the primary contests, which belong to those who are the farthest from the center.
“They don’t reward compromise, they punish compromise,” Davis said.
“The two congressional parties have moved to the extremes,” agreed Frost, who was a member of Temple Rodef Shalom when he served in Washington from 1979 to 2005. “The Republicans have moved pretty far to the right, the Democrats has moved to the left, and there is no incentive to compromise.”
Feeding the single party district, Davis said, is “plain old-fashioned gerrymandering” — manipulating the boundaries of an electoral constituency to favor one political party.
“With the data analytics available today, you can draw districts with precision,” he said, joking that artist Pablo Picasso could make money today creating electoral districts.
Audience member Eddie Eitches, of McLean, agreed with Davis on gerrymandering, pointing out that Maryland Democrats have created congressional districts that favor their party, while Virginia Republicans have done the same.
“When redistricting takes place, whoever controls the state House and Senate can basically set up lines that make no sense at all to get more representatives from their party,” he said.
The former congressmen wrote “The Partisan Divide: Congress in Crisis,” a 2014 book which addresses the constant conflict on Capitol Hill and proposes solutions.
McLean resident Sam Simon, whose son, Marcus Simon, is a Democratic delegate in the Virginia General Assembly, said he hopes a new generation of politicians can unlock the gridlock.
“We need significant change,” he said, “and Virginia needs it, too.”
Davis and Frost also discussed earmarks, funds that legislators — in this case, Congress —direct must be spent in a predetermined location or go to specific a recipient and therefore avoid other competitive allocation processes.
Frost said that despite negative connotations surrounding earmarks, they have the potential to increase bipartisanship in some situations.
Curt Ritter, of Arlington, said he had not thought of it that way.
“I was fascinated by the potential positive aspects of the earmarks. I hadn’t considered that. I can see now that are some beneficial results of the earmarks,” he said.
The two former members of Congress leavened their wonkishness with humor. Davis touched on one of the more divisive issues of the day — the name of Washington’s football team.
“Dan Snyder was asked about his football team, the Washington Redskins, and admitted the term Washington Redskins was in fact a divisive and polarizing name,” Davis said. “And that he was contemplating changing the name from Washington Redskins to just the Redskins.”