After another one of its brief but unproductive visits to Washington, the
Congress will leave town Friday for a 10-day Memorial Day recess to ask voters
and contributors to rehire them. Actually, they no longer refer to this time
away from the Capitol as “recess” but prefer calling it a “district work period”
out of deference to kindergarteners, who were offended by the
Whether they stay in town, return home or jet off on another
junket, it seems to make less and less difference these days as gridlock reaches
historic proportions. And if you think it’s bad now, just wait. The signals
coming from campaigns across the country contain ominous warnings that things
are going to get a lot worse.
In the months leading up to the election,
both parties will be playing gotcha politics, trying to make the other look like
the real obstacle to progress. President Barack Obama is putting out his “to do”
list of priority legislation he knows Republicans won’t pass, and they are
returning the favor by trying to force votes intended to make more mischief, not
No sooner had Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock trounced
six-term Sen. Richard Lugar in last week’s Republican primary for not being
conservative enough than he served notice that he wants to see Washington become
even more polarized, not less.
It helped that Lugar had grown distant
from his Indiana constituents over 35 years in the Senate, not even maintaining
a home in the state and not taking the challenge seriously until too late, but
the main charge Mourdock leveled against him was that he was a
Mourdock, who had strong backing from the Tea Party and other
ultra-conservatives, defined bipartisanship as: Democrats must accept GOP
positions, with no possibility of compromise.
“I have a mindset that says
bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of
view,” he announced.
Lugar voted consistently conservative and along
party lines on domestic issues but on foreign policy, the longtime leading
Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee had a reputation for bipartisan
cooperation. In today’s GOP that is apparently an unforgivable sin.
is one more reason why public approval of the Congress is in the dumps and the
public puts more trust in used car salesmen than in their lawmakers. Two of the
most respected congressional scholars, Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution
and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, recently wrote a
scathing indictment of the dysfunctional legislative branch entitled “It’s Even
Worse Than It Looks.”
After 40 years of studying and writing about
Congress, they concluded Congress has never been so dysfunctional and “the core
of the problem lies with the Republican Party.” Many of the battles are going on
within the GOP itself, as traditional conservatives find themselves under attack
from the Tea Party followers on the hard right. Speaker John Boehner and Senate
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have more than once found themselves embarrassed
that their troops would not follow them but insisted on more extreme
Both leaders are considered staunch conservatives, but they
may not be conservative enough if Tea Party favorites do well in November and
decide to install in leadership positions some of their own kind who would be
even less inclined to compromise.
In the Senate that includes Tea Party
guru Jim DeMint of South Carolina and freshman senators Rand Paul of Kentucky,
Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Mike Lee of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida.
the House, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), who sees himself as a mentor to
the Tea Partiers, has come under attack from his right flank for working with
his Democratic counterpart to fashion compromises on several recent pieces of
But they still consider him more conservative than Boehner,
and Cantor could decide to go for the top job in the 113th Congress next year,
fulfilling his rumored ambition to become the first Jewish House
Mourdock’s victory in Indiana has taken that Senate seat from
easy Republican win to toss-up. It also has further encouraged the Tea Partiers
to go after other incumbent Republicans, through reapportionment and primary
challenges, to teach them that compromise is a dirty word.
one GOP senate primary candidate told The Washington Post, “We need to shake up
Tea Party favorites also are running in GOP primaries
in Arizona, Nebraska, Utah and Texas to purge the party of
Utah’s six-term Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) is fighting back hard to
avoid being caught off guard by a challenge from his right like the one that
deposed Sen. Bob Bennett (R) two years ago.
“The center of gravity in the
Republican party has shifted sharply to the right,” according to Ornstein and
Mann. “Democrats are hardly blameless, and they have their own extreme wing” but
they tend to remain within “the normal bounds of robust politics.”
someone like the bombastic Florida GOP congressman, Allen West, plays Joe
McCarthy and accuses “78 to 81” Democrats in the current Congress of being
Communists, the most alarming thing isn’t that he said it but the “almost
complete lack of condemnation” from Republican congressional leaders and
presidential candidates, said Mann and Ornstein.
“The GOP has become an
insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of
compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and
science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition,” they
In Indiana the other day Richard Mourdock served notice that if he
is elected things will get a lot worse.