On a spring day in 1984, a politician named Tip O’Neill walked to the floor of the U.S. House, his face red with rage.
O’Neill’s appearance was unusual. Speakers of the House rarely engage in debate.
On this day, however, the Washington veteran was incensed at a rowdy band of Republican rebels who were exploiting a new technology — live telecasts of House debates — to smack Democrats as wasteful and unpatriotic.
A little-known Georgia congressman named Newt Gingrich had recently made just such an accusation.
O’Neill reached the podium, turning to face his nemesis.
“My personal opinion is this,” he roared. “You deliberately stood in that well before an empty House and challenged these people, and challenged their patriotism, and it is the lowest thing that I’ve ever seen in my 32 years in Congress!”
The chamber responded in shocked silence, for just a moment.
Then a Republican quickly moved to have O’Neill’s words “taken down” — removed from the official record. It was an unprecedented rebuke for a House speaker, the first time such an action had been taken since 1795.
Our government’s slide into dysfunction and disaster was under way.
As the nation hurtles toward the 2012 election, compromise remains a dirty word, voices of moderation have all but been drowned out, and America is critically divided, a country without a middle ground.
As a result, experts agree: Our politics are polarized to a degree unmatched since the end of the Civil War. In some states Democrats dominate. In the Great Plains, the GOP controls most of the levers of power.
Consequently, Congress struggles to make even the simplest decisions. Critical problems are unaddressed. Confidence in government plummets. Politics are paralyzed and gripped by anger, resentment and fear — emotions O’Neill likely felt that day.
Worse than you think
Today, Gingrich downplays the incident.
“Look, this is the Tip O’Neill who presided over the impeachment (proceedings) of Richard Nixon,” he told The Kansas City Star. “That, of course, wasn’t partisan because the left liked it.”
To be sure, there have been other possible tipping points in our deeply divided politics: Democrats turning back U.S. Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in the late 1980s, or President Bill Clinton facing impeachment in the 1990s, or George W. Bush winning a disputed presidential election in 2000.
But wherever you choose to start, the evidence of polarization and stalemate is clear: Hyperpartisans unwilling to compromise. Aggressive fringe politicians who exploit new technologies such as talk radio, blogs and social media to push a no-deals message to like-minded voters. And stakes considered high enough that the public sees bipartisan compromise as surrender or appeasement.
Kansans, who elected moderate Republican Nancy Kassebaum three times and helped nominate Bob Dole for president, are now represented by perhaps the most conservative congressional delegation in America. No Democrat holds a federal or statewide elected office.
Missouri, once a bellwether state represented by moderate Republican Jack Danforth, will now consider Senate candidate U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, called “too conservative” for Missouri by Democratic opponent Sen. Claire McCaskill.
The label actually helped his campaign in the Republican primary.
“The American people truly would be horrified if they understood how dysfunctional it has become,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, a centrist think tank. “How poisoned, how intractable, how unfriendly.”
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat from Kansas City, said if Americans truly knew how bad it was, “they’d be marching on the Capitol with pitchforks.”
As it is, horror is one of the most common ways Americans now describe their government.
Today, a Gallup poll shows congressional approval has dropped to 10 percent, the lowest level in almost 40 years. The IRS is four times more popular.
“Congress needs to work together,” said Alexander Barket of Lawrence, an IT professional. “That means compromise. The founding fathers didn’t intend on stagnation and gridlock.”
Mildred Cooke, an 82-year-old retired teacher from Columbia, thinks “what this country needs is some George Washingtons and some Abraham Lincolns who think ‘what is good for my country,’ and not ‘what is good for me and my friends.’ ”
It may be true that the country needs Washingtons and Lincolns. It isn’t clear, in the present environment, if either could win an election today.
“Everybody ought to stand on principle,” said Donna Frazier, a 59-year-old retired schoolteacher from Excelsior Springs. “Until there’s bloodshed.”
In June, the Senate debated and passed the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2012, known to almost everyone as the farm bill.
Years ago, farm bills routinely passed with bipartisan support — every member of Congress represents someone who eats, and most represent some farmers. Yet across the Capitol in the House, bipartisan momentum for the bill wilted, even as farmers battled the worst drought in decades. Too expensive, conservatives said. Too many cuts to food stamps, liberals answered.
Was there an alternative to the farm bill? Yes: Emergency drought relief, enough to get some farmers through the summer.
The Republican House said yes. The Democratic Senate said no.
Behold the modern American legislature, where nothing is accomplished, and slowly.
“Congress is almost impossible. It’s unruly anyway under the best of circumstances,” said former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, now a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “Now we have the worst of circumstances.”
Indeed, on issue after issue, the federal government now fails to execute its most important tasks:
The current 112th Congress has passed just 151 public laws since it convened in January 2011, the fewest laws in at least six decades. The next-most-unproductive national legislature — the 104th Congress, 1995-1996 — passed 280 public laws. It still found time, under a Democratic president and a Republican Congress, to shut down the federal government for several weeks.
For comparison, the 1947-1948 “do-nothing” Congress attacked by Harry Truman passed 906 public laws.
The current Senate has not produced a stand-alone budget. The last budget, required by law, was passed in April 2009.
Last year, Congress failed to pass a single regular stand-alone spending bill by the October deadline — 12 mandatory appropriations measures for spending on defense, transportation, the justice system and other departments. With seven weeks to go, no department spending bills have become law this year.
New bills for transportation, airport operations and student loan rates languished for months before limited measures passed. A bipartisan bill to ensure safer computer communications has stalled in the Senate. The debt-ceiling debacle of 2011 led to a downgrade of the U.S. credit rating, and may be partly responsible for the stalled economy. The “supercommittee” established to narrow the budget deficit failed, prompting mandatory spending cuts virtually no one wants.
The worst may be yet to come: Congress must avoid the “fiscal cliff,” the end-of-the-year deadline for reforming the Bush tax cuts, addressing $109 billion in automatic cuts to defense and social programs, the expiration of the payroll tax cut, and Medicare payment rates.
Yet every attempt at compromise has collapsed.
“It breaks your heart,” said former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, a Republican, about the state of Congress. “If you didn’t have compromise, you wouldn’t have the great legislation of the last 50 years.”
Some current members of the House dispute suggestions they aren’t productive, blaming the Democratic Senate for delays.
“They can’t move their own bills, let alone our bills,” said Rep. Kevin Yoder, a Kansas Republican.
Rep. Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican, believes producing fewer bills might actually reflect good judgment, not broken politics. “If Congress is passing half as many bills, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing,” Graves said.
Bill Galston of the bipartisan group No Labels disagreed. “I guess I’d like to smoke what they’re smoking,” he said. “Gridlock is fine if you don’t need to do anything.”
Yoder and other Republicans also blame President Barack Obama.
“We had bipartisan deals done on the debt commission, we had a supercommittee that was very close to cutting a deal, and in both of those cases were stymied by a president who refused to get involved,” said Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
But evidence of government stalemate isn’t limited to policy decisions and fights with the White House. Congress has largely stopped making laws because they prefer votes on symbolic measures all sides know can’t possibly pass.
Indeed, the 112th House has voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act more than two dozen times. The Senate has passed a tax hike for high earners that the House will never consider.
In both cases — and in dozens of others — votes are designed to politically embarrass opponents, not to pass real laws. Most of the symbolic votes are designed to show up in political commercials in the fall.
“If you can’t bring (voters) substantive achievement, you bring them symbols and you bring them noise,” said Dan Schnur, Sen. John McCain’s communications director in 2000, who is now a political scientist at the University of Southern California.
“It becomes the next-best thing to an actual accomplishment.”
What went wrong?
There’s a simple explanation for the dysfunction disaster: Democrats and Republicans now agree on almost nothing.
A highly respected and widely quoted study at voteview.com shows the two parties’ congressional votes are now more divergent than at any time since the end of the Civil War. The level of polarization in both houses has roughly doubled since O’Neill shouted at Gingrich.
Other studies show a similar result: The most conservative Democrat is still more liberal than the most liberal Republican.
And moderates are not just endangered, they’re almost extinct.
“There’s no overlap in the voting patterns it is a very striking difference,” said John Fortier, a political scientist and director of the Democracy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Political scientists Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann, in their new book “It’s Even Worse Than You Think,” wrote “political parties today are more internally unified and ideologically distinctive than they have been in over a century.”
That polarization is a key reason why compromise between the parties is increasingly difficult. Political scientists point out that America’s republican democracy virtually requires compromise to function — unlike Europe’s parliamentary models where a single party generally controls the government.
“There is no escape from compromise,” write Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson in their book “The Spirit of Compromise.” “Almost no major change can happen without major compromises.”
Why are the parties so far apart? Partially because voters’ support for moderation has largely vanished.
For example, at least five self-described Republican moderates ran in state senate primaries in Johnson County, Kan., in August. Four of them lost.
At the same time, liberal groups have expressed repeated disappointment with Obama, who they feel has not been liberal enough.
Obama “has failed to advance the progressive cause,” said Harvard professor Roberto Unger in a recent video. “He has spent trillions of dollars to rescue the moneyed interests and left workers and homeowners to their own devices.”
In the current presidential race, the true undecideds — those who can honestly say they have not made up their minds — likely make up just 2 percent or 3 percent of the electorate, political scientists estimated.
Those voters likely won’t be influenced by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s recent choice of Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate. Indeed, Ryan is considered a leading intellect of the House Republican majority, which has generally opposed compromise in the 112th Congress.
In fact, candidates such as Ryan are expected to reinforce voters who want politicians who stick to principles, even if gridlock is the result.
“There are some things you can’t compromise,” said Bill Harris, 55, a builder in Kansas City. “All laws are kind of moral, so if you go from one thing to another, I don’t know what to believe.”
Also to blame: Congressional district maps, drawn not to represent constituents fairly but to lock in party gains. This year in Kansas state legislative Republicans attempted to draw congressional districts even more favorable to the GOP in a state already overwhelmingly Republican. What’s more, some social scientists contend, Americans are increasingly moving to neighborhoods which reflect their political views: Conservatives move to red districts in rural areas and the suburbs, while liberals move to bluer cities.
“In 1993 there were 91 Democrats who represented really Republican districts,” Fortier said. “Today there are less than 10.”
In addition to polarized politicians from bright-red and deep-blue districts, experts said 21st century media also play a role in our non-compromising politics.
The traditional nonpartisan mass media, general interest newspapers and broadcast news programs, have been pushed aside by agenda-driven cable stations, talk radio, blog sites and Twitter feeds.
“If you don’t like Obama, or you’re suspicious of Obama, there’s a network you can turn to 24-7 and be convinced he’s the anti-Christ,” said Democratic political consultant Richard Martin. “If you do like Obama and if you’re concerned about Mitt Romney, you have another network you can turn to and get 24 hours of why this guy’s all about shipping jobs overseas, and he’s an elitist.”
And billions of dollars in special-interest campaign donations further discourage deal-making, Glickman pointed out.
“It tends to encourage risk-averse behavior,” he said. “You know if you’re going to vote a certain way or take a controversial position, somebody could put in $500,000 against you tomorrow. You’re less likely to do anything to solve any problems.”
Who’s to blame?
The result of all of this, critics contend, is a take-no-prisoners approach that makes agreement not just capitulation, but a moral failure.
And some pundits blame Republicans for the impasse more than Democrats.
Even prominent former GOP senators such as Simpson and Jack Danforth of Missouri agreed the modern Republican Party has veered toward extreme ideological beliefs and policies and has embraced what Danforth told The Star are “cynical and destructive means” to achieve their ends.
Nationally, more than 70 percent of Republicans these days identify themselves as conservative or very conservative, while just 40 percent of Democrats call themselves liberal or very liberal. Studies show more Republicans have moved sharply rightward since the 1970s than Democrats have moved to the left.
Newer House members are more intent on bringing government to its knees than Republicans of just a generation ago, some experts maintained. In part, that reflects the influence of the tea party, a populist movement of voters deeply distrustful of some parts of government.
“Newt Gingrich came to town with the express purpose of killing Bill Clinton politically, and his deputy, Tom DeLay, was as partisan as anyone has ever been,” Third Way’s Bennett said. “But they weren’t Jacobins. They weren’t trying to burn the place down, like some of the folks are now.”
Tea party favorite Richard Mourdock won a surprising primary victory this summer in Indiana, defeating longtime incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar. His post-election message? Compromise means the other side gives in. “I hope to build a conservative majority in the United States Senate so that bipartisanship becomes Democrats joining Republicans to roll back the size of government,” Mourdock said.
That kind of talk has discouraged some moderate Republicans, who are leaving Congress entirely. Rep. Steven LaTourette of Ohio was among the latest to call it quits.
“Anybody that doesn’t understand,” LaTourette said, “that in a split government it’s not going to be your way or the highway, is nuts.”
Not every compromise, of course, is a good thing.
Contemporary political scientists believe narrow compromises sometimes can lead to disaster. “Bipartisanship offers no ironclad guarantee of good policy,” wrote Pietro Nivola of the Brookings Institution in 2010.
The founding fathers famously compromised on the checks and balances in the Constitution, but also embedded the “three-fifths” compromise in the document, leading census takers to count slaves as less than fully human.
And America has experienced breathtaking congressional logjams before.
The post-Civil War period from 1874 to 1890 found the two major parties ideologically opposed to each other, with party control of Congress changing frequently.
“There were intense hatreds,” Charles Stewart, a political scientist at the Massachusetts of Technology, said of that period. “Politics was as nasty as it is now.”
But there was a difference. Congress was still able to pass legislation. “They just didn’t know if that legislation would stick two years later” after control of the House shifted again, Stewart explained.
Quietly, some members of both parties expect — hope — the November election will clear all of this up. Others are pessimistic. The losing party this fall, they predicted, has little incentive to compromise and won’t be in any mood to do so anyway.
“It’s hard to see what gets us out of this situation,” said Eric Schickler, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. “That’s the scary part.”
That will leave enormous, complicated issues on the table, waiting for someone to knit the nation’s politics back together. Social Security, Medicare, tax policy, stubborn unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, energy costs, wage gaps, a worn-out military, pockets of poor schools, racial disparities, millions of underwater mortgages, growing foreign competition, the national debt and a bitter, disillusioned public must all still be addressed.
Oddly, that gives some reason for hope.
“Even the people who are fairly partisan in Washington feel the guillotine of a 10 percent approval rating,” said Mark McKinnon, George W. Bush’s media adviser. “They know that they’ve got a lot of trouble at home, and they’ve got to start showing some results.”
Galston of No Labels put it this way: “Political parties are capable of learning through experience.
“If they’re not, we’re dead.”