Gridlock in Washington: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

Washington Watch: In Indiana the other day Richard Mourdock served notice that if he is elected things will get a lot worse.

Richard Lugar (photo credit: Medill DC via Creative Commons)
Richard Lugar
(photo credit: Medill DC via Creative Commons)
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 comparison.
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 laws.
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 “moderate.”
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.
That 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 positions.
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.
In 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 legislation.
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 Speaker.
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.
In Missouri one GOP senate primary candidate told The Washington Post, “We need to shake up the Republicans.”
Tea Party favorites also are running in GOP primaries in Arizona, Nebraska, Utah and Texas to purge the party of moderates.
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.”
When 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 said.
In Indiana the other day Richard Mourdock served notice that if he is elected things will get a lot worse.