Who Is to Blame for Washington Gridlock?

Partisan primaries, cable news, and ‘political terrorism’ create a dysfunctional Congress

Published August 23, 2012 in US News Link to Interview

Americans of all political leanings are increasingly frustrated with politics and an apparently dysfunctional Congress. In his book, The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, Mike Lofgren, a former congressional staffer for the Senate and House Budget committees, offers an insider’s view of a system he says has fallen prey to corporate interests and partisan lobbying. Lofgren recently spoke to U.S. News about how extreme partisanship has become counterproductive and how Americans let it get that way.


Why did you leave Congress?
I saw, just after the elections of late 2010, that the new Republican House was going to use the debt ceiling as a hostage to get what it wanted. When I listened to the rhetoric of some of the freshmen, people like Michele Bachmann, it became evident to me that they didn’t understand [that raising] the debt limit only meant we’re acknowledging the bills we’d already piled up, many of which were voted for by members of Congress already. People were saying well, it really didn’t matter, it’s not a big deal if we default. It is a big deal. And it was a big deal when Standard and Poor’s downgraded us, the sovereign debt of the United States, not because they don’t think we are capable of paying our debts to bond holders but because political gridlock is making it so. This kind of hyperpartisan atmosphere where nothing can get done—the burden became greater than the reward.
[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

How has each party been responsible?
Of course, they each play to their base. The whole partisan primary process, rather than open primaries, tends to guarantee that the most extreme candidate, throwing red meat at his intended audience, will get the nomination in the primary. Also, the gerrymandering of districts, such that it’s either a safe 60 to 70 percent Republican or Democrat, means that there’s very little competition among the 435 seats. This means they have no incentive to compromise.
What is behind this shift to extremes?
Everything I’ve said, plus things like talk radio and a 24-hour a day Fox News thing. So there’s kind of become no objective benchmark that most people now can look to and say, “yeah, that’s pretty much the way it happened.” If they see something in the media that doesn’t fit with their bias, they automatically discount it as not true and part of the liberal media conspiracy or whatever, and just prefer to ignore it. This sort of thing tends to drive out the middle-of-the-road people, just ordinary citizens, so it becomes a kind of self-reinforcing cycle. As people on the outside who aren’t as politically engaged become more apathetic, the field is left to more partisan adherents who are always getting revved up by Rush Limbaugh every day.

[See a slide show of the top 10 most hated news commentators.]

What do you mean when you talk of “political terrorism”?
I think a good example of that is the debt ceiling limit. Holding the creditworthiness of the United States hostage to get one’s ideological way. We passed debt ceiling extensions something like 80 times since the second World War. Ronald Reagan is the icon of conservatives, but he said when he was in office that the government should pay its bills, Congress should stop posturing and pass this extension.

How has the money race contributed to the gridlock in Washington?
Because special interests are focused narrowly on their own issue to the exclusion of others, and rather than on coherent policy agenda in the broad public interest. It’s a sort of patchwork series of special interest hobby horses that will get passed in the House and die in the Senate, or whatever, or won’t get past committee. Often these are just partisan amendments to make the other side take a tough vote, like you’ll see abortion amendments on all kinds of extraneous legislation where it doesn’t belong. And the Democrats do some of the same things. One year they tried to stick a major immigration bill on the Defense Authorization bill, which, setting aside whether you’re for or against the substance of the immigration legislation, really doesn’t belong on a defense bill. There should be a focus on broader public interest things, like bills to keep the government funded and keep the trains rolling.

What do you want voters to take away from your book?
The notion that the United States is not immortal; it can’t go on with a dysfunctional political system forever. People have to be civically engaged, intelligently engaged and informed, and although one can stand back and be apathetic [and say], “well, the special interests simply took over and I have nothing to say,” well, it happened gradually over time because the public wasn’t engaged. They didn’t stop it when it might have been easier to stop. They didn’t hold politicians accountable.