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Can They Get Along?

Paul Quirk on the prospects for bipartisan co-operation and competent government in the U.S.

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12 November, 2012
By: Paul Quirk
Phil Lind Chair in US Politics and Representation, Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia

Trying to help restore order during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Rodney King, the victim in an earlier notorious episode of police brutality, publicly pleaded, “Can’t we all get along?”  Many U.S. citizens and leaders express similar sentiments nowadays, hoping for a greater degree of co-operation between Democrats and Republicans in Washington, and hoping that the president and Congress will manage to deal responsibly with the long-term fiscal issues facing the country. Canadians, almost as dependent on the health of the U.S. economy as Americans, share the concern. 

How have the elections affected the prospects for bipartisan co-operation and competent government? There are some hopeful considerations. Unfortunately, it would be easy to make too much of them.


During the last two years of President Obama’s first term, three overlapping political or institutional conditions have undermined the policymaking capability of the U.S. federal government. First, since the 2010 midterm elections, different political parties have controlled the presidency and one chamber of Congress – the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Second, in a development that has been building for a generation, the two parties have been ideologically polarized to an unprecedented degree. As sophisticated measures based on roll-call votes demonstrate, they are now further apart on the left-right dimension than at any previous time in American history.  The Republican Party, in particular, has moved sharply to the right, with many members holding far more extreme views than ever before. A concrete manifestation of Republican extremism is that the vast preponderance of the party’s senators and representatives have signed a pledge, promoted by Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform, not to vote for any tax increase under any circumstances. Third, continuing a longer-term trend on the part of Senate minorities, the current Republican Senate minority has used the filibuster to block policy change, indefinitely, essentially any time it has disagreed with proposed legislation.  

Taken together, these conditions have made it extremely difficult for the president, the Senate, and the House to find common ground to enact significant policy change. The most recent Congress has been, in sheer quantitative terms – that is, the amount of public legislation enacted – the least productive in modern history. More important, these institutions have proven incapable of resolving conflicts in order to take needed action.  Canada, the world, and the American public watched in horror during fall 2011 as disagreement over long-term fiscal issues nearly prevented action to raise the federal debt limit – a measure that was needed simply to avoid default on federal government bonds; a failure to meet salary, pension, and other spending obligations; and an economic calamity of a high order.  In the end, Congress and the president agreed to postpone all of the difficult issues until after the 2012 elections, resulting in the current, equally worrisome “fiscal cliff.”

The question, then, is what, if anything, the election changed about the problematic institutional conditions. To begin with, it certainly has not changed anything important about the institutional distribution of power between the parties. The Senate Democratic majority has increased from 53 (of 100) to 55. Because one of the new Democratic seats had been held by the most liberal Republican senator (Olympia Snowe of Maine), the effect of that change will be minimal. On the other hand, the Republican House majority has held roughly steady at about 234 (of 435, down from 242) with a handful of seats not yet determined. Because the House is more effectively controlled by the majority party than the Senate, in all circumstances, the exact margin is not especially important in any case. (That the Senate and House ended up in opposite party camps was largely the consequence of Republican domination of state redistricting processes after the 2010 census.) Finally, the same party – and, indeed, the very same person – controls the presidency. On the face of it, the result of the elections is “same old, same old” for American government.

There are nevertheless a few grounds for a modicum of optimism, along with some largely false hopes for substantial change. Let’s sort them out. As a vast amount of post-election commentary has pointed out, the Republican Party’s strategy of relying on white – especially male – voters and largely ignoring minority groups has arguably run out of steam, permanently, as a result of the changing demographics of the country. Gov. Mitt Romney won more than 60 per cent of the white vote, and he fell short by 2.5 per cent in the national popular vote – and there will never again be such a large proportion of white voters. Some expect that this reality will force the party toward moderation.

However, two factors will prevent any major adjustment: First, the imperative for change pertains to the national electorate, and thus presidential elections, along with Senate elections in a certain number of competitive, demographically changing states. Most Republican members of the House and even the Senate are doing just fine, electorally, with the party’s current ideological posture. In the swing state of Ohio, every one of the 10 Republican House members elected this year won his or her election by at least 10 per cent of the vote, except for one who won by six per cent and one who defeated a Democratic incumbent by four per cent in a newly merged district. 

Second, even at the presidential level, the Republican party has little capacity to effect a strategic repositioning. Presidential nominations are made by primary elections and caucuses that are dominated by the ideologically conservative party base. Leading Republicans can wring their hands about the need for a more moderate Republican presidential nominee in 2016. But the same voters who seriously entertained Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain, among other hard-line conservatives, will make the choice. In 2016, the Republicans will have to be lucky to avoid one or the other of two kinds of nominees: an unelectable, hard-line conservative or another closet moderate, severely wounded by the nomination process.

What the election portends for the congressional Republican party, rather than a significantly new posture, is an even greater degree of tension between the party leaders, especially Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, on the one hand, and the rank-and-file Republican members of Congress, especially in the House of Representatives, on the other. The leaders will be concerned about the party’s reputation, the electoral prospects of its relatively few members from competitive states or districts, and the chances for capturing majority control (in the Senate) or maintaining it (in the House).

In contrast, the majority of rank-and-file Republican members will be concerned about their own policy preferences and election chances. In most cases, they will be more worried about a potential primary election challenge from the right than about a Democratic challenge from the left – much less about the party’s standing with the national electorate. These tensions are already apparent. The day after the election, Speaker Boehner offered a vague, partial concession to President Barack Obama and the Democrats, recognizing the likelihood of some revenue increases being part of a budget deal to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff.” Yet, he reiterated the party’s long-standing firm position against any increases in tax rates – appealing to the dubious notion that substantial revenues can be raised merely through “tax reform.” A leading Democratic senator, Chuck Schumer of New York, offered an interpretation of Boehner’s remarks that highlights the tension I have described: “Boehner wants to compromise; that’s why he gave that speech. He’s not a hard-right guy, he’s a mainstream conservative …. And I think it’s going to help because the hard right is chastened in a lot of ways.”

Given his custodianship of the House Republicans’ national reputation, Boehner will indeed want to compromise. That reputation suffered considerably in the fall 2011 debt-limit fiasco, as commentators and most of the public blamed the Republican House as the most intransigent participant in the negotiations and the main cause of the failure to act effectively.   Nevertheless, Boehner is likely to remain unwilling to act, as he was in 2011, in the absence of majority support from the members of his caucus. His fundamental problem, therefore, will be that, by and large, the party’s constituency base in the various districts does not care about political strategy or the party’s reputation.

One relatively minor improvement is quite feasible, if not necessarily very likely. The Senate can modify the filibuster rule ­– eliminating most of the minority obstructionism – through a rules change that can be adopted by a mere majority, provided that it is done on the first day of the new Congress. That would at least enable the Democratic Senate to arrive at a definite position as a basis for negotiation with the House. Some Democrats have been advocating this change during the last several years. The party as a whole has not been ready for it.

In any case, the prospect for the foreseeable future – reinforced, not challenged, by the election results – is for more of what is generally called “kicking the can further down the road.”  In dealing with the ideologically fraught fiscal issues, the president and Congress will struggle merely to avert immediate disaster. In their efforts to force greater concessions by the other side, both sides will tolerate considerable damage. The solution to the United States’ serious governing problems is not yet on the horizon. Whether the 2012 elections have even brought such a solution closer is unfortunately doubtful.

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