Former Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana has announced a new group called No Labels that will unveil on December 13, 2011, a new 12-point plan designed to Make Congress Work. I have no idea what is in the 12-point plan, but I can suggest a few key problem areas that are contributing to the polarization of Congress, and that should be factored into it:
- Gerrymandering, the redrawing of congressional districts to assure dominance by one party or the other, has been refined to unheard of extremes with modern computer technology. Fewer and fewer legislative districts are remotely competitive. That means that most candidates need only appeal to their party stalwarts, which is invariably the most extreme fringe of their party. Similarly, party primaries and caucuses have been taken over by small extremist groups. Thus, while opinion polls invariably show the great majority of Americans support compromise on tough fiscal issues, the politicians representing us remain wedded to fringe positions. Few politicians are speaking for the vast majority of moderate citizens.
- The electronic news media reinforces extremist positions. Not so long ago, we got our news from a few major outlets that tended to present centrist views. Now we have dozens of cable channels and radio outlets that offer nonstop extremist views. This is not good. There is something about being exposed to contrary views that forces us to rethink our positions and move more toward the middle. But given a choice, there is a strong temptation to only watch or listen to media voices that reinforce our preconceptions and prejudices. We need balanced presentation of complex issues. What we get instead is inflammatory sound bites and extremist rhetoric that does not promote sensible discourse.
- Congressional procedures undermine comity. The House has long been captive of the majority party, reducing the minority to impotence. And the Senate has somehow evolved a set of rules that have fostered political sclerosis. The Senate has become a parody of a legislative body, and a challenge to sensible government.
- Unlimited political spending skewers the political forum to the advantage of the wealthy, a major reason why raising taxes is such a volatile issue. The wealthy have always exercised undue influence on our government, but campaign finance regulation did hold it down to a dull roar. Now the U.S. Supreme Court has opened the floodgates to the moneyed interests. It was an extremely poor decision, but it is what it is.
There is little we can do, at least in the near term, to impose maturity on the news media or undo the Supreme Court's decision on political spending. But there is much we can do to foster comity in Congress. We could launch a nationwide campaign to have congressional districts drawn by nonpartisan committees, and thoughtful legislators of both parties could undertake serious socialization — spending time with each other, forming friendships, sharing views, and becoming friends again. They all need to re-learn the fine art of compromise. We need to re-establish a sense of political community, comity and compromise.
Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. Jerry is available for speaking engagements.