‘Posturing has become more rewarding than progress’
Why the next crop of congressional leaders won’t be able to go it alone.
Congressional leaders used to build on their strengths. The deals they made increased their clout and provided momentum as they headed into the next fight.
Those days appear to be over. As the career of outgoing Speaker John Boehner shows, even real victories can be pyrrhic if members of your own caucus see the achievements as capitulation. This is a major contributor to the dysfunction that has long hung around Washington like an unwanted guest.
“Posturing has become more rewarding than progress,” says Larry Sabato, who directs the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “That’s a terrible problem for constructive leaders.”
It’s already hardened into conventional wisdom that the next speaker (presumably Kevin McCarthy, the current House majority leader) won’t have any more luck than Boehner in selling the idea that — so long as Democrats hold the White House and enough votes to filibuster bills in the Senate — conservative Republicans will have to give in on many big votes.
“Somewhere in the definition of a deal is that there’s compromise,” says Kenneth Gold, who directs the Government Affairs Institute. “How does the next speaker manage the Republicans better than Boehner does?”
Legislative leaders are supposed to be the fulcrum of the policymaking process, the central point on which the process turns. Instead, they have come under such pressure from all sides they can scarcely make a move themselves. “So long as leaders face such demand to steer their parties, it’s hard for them not to be the stress points of the institution,” says Sarah Binder, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution.
There’s nothing new about this. Congressional leaders have frequently been challenged by big waves of newcomers — the Senate Democratic Class of 1958, the so-called Watergate babies elected in 1974 — who demand both a voice and changes to make procedures more to their liking.
They become like the man walking an unruly Great Dane — is he walking the dog, or is the dog walking him?
“Leaders are often in the crosshairs when these electoral shifts bring in a sufficient number of new members who demand and expect change,” says Cindy Simon Rosenthal, director of the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma. “The leadership represents the status quo and the newcomers want change, now.”
That’s certainly been the case with tea party Republicans and other conservatives elected in the big GOP waves of 2010 and 2014. Even as they have grown more impatient with budget deals that fail to slash government spending to their liking, leaders have fewer tools available to discipline colleagues and control the process.
Party leaders can withhold fundraising help from junior members who fail to get with the program. That’s no longer much of a threat, however, when any politician worth her salt can find a supportive super PAC on her own.
Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, have gotten rid of earmarks, which means leaders lack the currency they once had to buy support for a big vote with the promise of a bridge or a new wing for the medical center back home. Anyway, it’s not clear that today’s anti-government conservatives would be enticed by such goodies, Gold suggests.
In the end, it’s difficult to make deals with people who don’t want anything.
“Members of Congress used to want to brag about what they’d gotten done for their constituents,” Sabato says. “Now, there is greater political incentive to boast about what you stopped from happening.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. Polarization may prevent agreement on immigration or abortion policy, but there are enough votes to pass many items remaining on the congressional agenda, like a highway bill or the rebirth of the Export-Import Bank. There just aren’t enough votes solely on the Republican side.
One of the big question marks for the fall is whether Boehner will turn to Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, and agree to move such legislation on a bipartisan basis. “Deals are there for the taking, if the leadership actually decides to govern from the center,” Binder says.
That’s the dynamic that has ultimately broken recent impasses and led to compromises on issues such as funding for the Department of Homeland Security and health providers under Medicare. It’s also the dynamic, Binder notes, which cost Boehner his job.
If it’s already tough for contemporary leaders to keep their caucuses under control, voters have gone out of their way in recent years to oust more moderate dealmakers in both parties.
Today’s political incentives work against compromise. “And that’s what leaders do,” Gold says. “Leaders forge compromise. They can’t do it on their own.”