Matt HealeyWednesday,2 January 2013

The Snap:

As we approached the final deadline for the fiscal cliff negotiations, there was a lot of complaining that Congress was not “doing it’s job.” All of the news agencies did their “person on the street” interviews and the comments were all the same — “How come congress cannot just do their job and make a deal?” The implication was that they were somehow not doing their job by not making a deal. The problem is that they were doing exactly what the people who are complaining about them not doing job wanted them to do.

The Download:

A while back I wrote about Microtargeting and the National Popular Vote. The basic point of the post was that given the extreme ability of the campaigns to mico-target a few select voters, the political future is selected by a few voters in a limited number of swing states. The problem in the House of Representatives is even worse. The districts have been engineered so that the number of competitive districts has shrunk dramatically. The result of this is that the imperative to compromise with the other party is gone. Congress members no longer fear a challenge from the other party. They fear a primary challenger from a more extreme member of their own party, who may attack them for being too willing to compromise with the enemy. Given this, let’s look at the various constituencies.

Tea Party: There are approximately 50 Tea Party representatives. Their constituency has sent them to Washington to ensure that no taxes will be raises. For anyone. Ever. In addition, they want to reduce spending in some areas (specifically, entitlements) and expand spending in one critical area (defense). Balancing the budget is the goal, but only if taxes never go up, domestic social programs are gutted, and defense spending is increased.

Mainstream evangelical christian party of god: They are more willing to compromise, but given the redistricting, they are far less willing to compromise than past members of the evangelical christian party of god members, as they are more concerned with primary challengers than with general election challengers. So what do they have to do to keep their constituency happy? They need to appear to be working in a bipartisan way without ever really compromising on any of the core principles of not raising taxes, not cutting defense, and gutting entitlements. This leads to compromises like the offer to increase revenue by eliminating loop holes but not raising tax rates. The problem is that this offer would never raise the amount of revenue required so it was effectively a non-starter.

Liberal Democrats: The Liberal democrats are similar to the tea party, but are fewer in number. They are best represented by the “Occupy movement.” They have been elected to ensure that the entitlement programs remain intact, that the wealthy pay more in taxes, and that defence is cut. This is the exact opposite of the tea party. They are not as vocal as the tea party, but in the lead up to the most recent election, there was talk of a decline in enthusiasm for Obama and the Democrats. The main complaint was that the Democrats had let the GOP push them around, and that they rolled over and acquiesced to evangelical christian party of god demands and got nothing in return. So they want their representatives to stand up to the GOP.

Mainstream Democrats: Like the mainstream Republicans, they will be more willing to compromise than liberal Democrats. However, similar to the mainstream evangelical christian party of god, they are more concerned about primary challengers. The difference is that the liberal Democrats are not as powerful in the democratic circles as the Tea Party is to the Republicans. The reason for this is that the Democrats have been in control of the White house for the last 4 years. Because of this they are more willing to compromise. But they are still concerned that they could lose support if they are perceived as being weak.

This leads to the current situation where everyone is doing exactly what their individual constituency has elected them to do. No one wants to go over the cliff, but no one also wants to give in on what they care about. And what they care about is fundamentally different. If the public wants bi-partisan solutions, they need to stop sending representatives to Washington who run on the “no compromise” platform. The easiest way to do this, I think, is to reform the redistricting process so it is controlled by independent commissions rather than the politicians, or to go to the open primary system that California has adopted.

Authors note: This was written prior to reading WHO PUT THE ‘CON’ IN CONGRESS?

Hat Tips:

Nate Silver on Congressional districtsCA primary systemNYT article on loopholes, Microtargeting and the National Popular Vote, Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Take Action!


  1. […] is dysfunctional. Everyone agrees on that. One cause is the redistricting that drives our representatives to the extremes, and rewards hard line stances at the expense of […]

  2. […] The sequester is approaching and as was the case with the fiscal cliff, there is a lot of talk about “how come they can not just get a deal done.” Apparently we are just going to “kick the can down the road” again. This is despite the generally accepted wisdom that the people want a “Grand bargain“. […]

Subscribe to get updates delivered to your inbox