By Charles Ellison for the Philadelphia Tribune
There are endless reasons explaining the dysfunction of Congress these days. Theories abound, accusations fly across the airwaves, and the circular firing squads are hastily rearming themselves.
“The problem is [House Speaker] Boehner’s unruly children over on the Hill who he has no control over,” was David Axelrod’s take on it during a segment on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, President Obama’s political mastermind attempting to weave it into one digestible narrative. “They’re having a food fight at every caucus.”
In the wake of legislative debacles from the fiscal cliff to Superstorm Sandy relief, a number of observers are searching for why John Boehner’s House resembles reality television. But the road to chaos had stops along the way, and clues providing insight into the dark cloud of madness engulfing Capitol Hill.
“It will get uglier before it gets worse. Worse before it gets much worse than that. Sorry – nothing better and no end in sight,” jokes a lobbyist and former Congressional aide speaking anonymously.
A closer look at voting patterns, however, suggests that regional splits are becoming much more pronounced and obvious on a number of critical issues. Republicans who voted against the fiscal cliff deal and the $60.5 billion Superstorm Sandy relief package are primarily from rural and exurban states and Congressional districts in the South, West and Midwest. Some observers see a widening geographical gulf that is not only adding a sharper edge to the partisan tone on Capitol Hill, but is also explaining complex intra-party splits within each caucus.
While the majority of U.S. residents, 85 percent, are concentrated in urban and suburban metropolitan areas, many grow frustrated that lawmakers representing the smaller 15 percent are calling the shots.
The Sandy relief package, seeking to quickly funnel billions of dollars of needed aid to struggling New York and New Jersey, is a case in point. More than six percent of the entire U.S. population is centered in the New York and Northeastern Jersey corridor, the capitalist core of the country, and the largest financial center on the planet. Yet, despite the economic blow to the region from Sandy, Republicans in the House and Senate effectively stalled what would have typically sailed through both chambers.
In both the fiscal cliff and Sandy relief debates, fiscal conservatives cited the growing $16.5 trillion federal deficit as the main reason for pushback. Weeks earlier, during the pre-holiday lame duck session, Republican senators were attempting to cut the $60.4 billion figure by half. Sources on and off the Hill told The Tribune that some Republicans, still rankling from Governor Chris Christie’s, R-N.J., very public embrace of President Obama, were quietly seeking political payback for what they saw as a betrayal.
But, the geographical splits suggest a brewing legislative Civil War in Congress based on state lines and regions. Of the 32 senators who voted against the Sandy relief package, the vast majority were from traditionally rural or exurban states. Nearly half, 44 percent, hailed from Southern states like Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Texas. Others were from Western states — over 20 percent — like Arizona, Utah, Wyoming and South Dakota.
Only two, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., were from the Northeast. Many observers were scratching their heads over Toomey’s vote, considering the proximity of Sandy to his state — as well as the deep emotional and economic ties between New Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania. But others point to a Toomey strategy that attempts to stifle any primary challenges from his hard right, with much emphasis placed on the western and very conservative side of the Keystone State.
And while most of the GOP House leadership rallied behind Boehner to support the controversial fiscal cliff deal, it didn’t go unnoticed that his No. 2 House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., — also from a Southern state and rural district — voted against the deal. Of the 151 House Republicans who voted against the measure, the vast majority were from Southern, Midwestern and Western states. Entire GOP delegations from states such as Colorado, Georgia and South Carolina (to name a few) were voting against the fiscal cliff legislation.
“There has been no shortage of time to forge a solution to America’s fiscal crisis, but a lack of courage and will,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., a staunch conservative still feeling burned by Boehner after being removed from both the House Agricultural and Budget Committees. “The so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ is a Washington-made problem — the result of years of last-minute deals designed to avoid real solutions. But, eventually Washington must face the fiscal abyss left in the wake of too much spending, too much borrowing, and too much government.”
Huelskamp was also one of twelve Republican Members who voted against the re-election of Boehner as House Speaker last week. That tense roll call vote also showed geographic splits, with half of that dozen hailing from southern states.
Many experts contend that the highly partisan mood of House Republicans is due to the impact of redistricting after the 2010 Census. After gaining six of the eight state houses and governorships in states where population gains offered an opportunity for enhanced Congressional representation, the GOP was able to draw districts protecting their incumbents.
“Having winner-take-all elections and a narrow choice between two polarized parties has led to an unsustainable combination of circumstances,” says Rob Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy.
“There are very few districts where partisan change is possible. There is regional dominance by one party, including half of House Republicans from the former Confederacy. And leaders are more fearful of challenges from their base than the country at large.”
Hyper-partisan gerrymandering resulted in the creation of very heavily conservative and deeply “red” Congressional districts that did not vote for Obama. Only 15 House Republicans, out of 234 elected, come from districts where President Obama won a majority of voters.
“Moving to a more proportional system using multi-seat districts may be the best — or even the only — way of breaking this trend and making space for problem-solvers rather than ideologues,” argues Richie.
On the Senate side, which is dictated by statewide elections, the picture is much clearer. In 2014, 14 Republican senators are up for re-election and the president won only one of those states: Maine. Half those seats are in Southern states.