Harrington lecturer: No easy answer to congressional gridlock

Sarah BinderPolitical gridlock in Washington is nothing new, but polarization between the two major parties has become so acute that it’s led to historic dysfunction on Capitol Hill, a renowned researcher told a Clark University audience Monday.

Sarah Binder, Ph.D., a political scientist with George Washington University and the Brookings Institution, delivered the bleak news in the annual Harrington Lecture at Tilton Hall.

Binder noted that several “congressional pathologies” are contributing to the heightened polarization. Among them is Congress members’ single-minded goal to get reelected, which leaves them catering to their local constituencies — at the expense of passing legislation that would serve the national interest but may be unpopular at home. “They like to take credit for the good stuff, and avoid the blame for the bad,” Binder said. “That makes it difficult to effect policy changes. Nobody wants their fingerprints on ugly or tough solutions.”

With every vote needing to be justified in their home districts, some legislators find themselves on a short leash with constituents, including activist groups with “extreme expectations” but little understanding of the wider ramifications of a particular vote, she said.

Hyperpartisanship is another culprit of ineffective government, she said. Politics and policy have become so entwined that one party will offer knee-jerk opposition to a proposal brought forward by the other party. Even issues such as foreclosure relief, which affect states with similar numbers of red (conservative) and blue (liberal) districts, result in intense standoffs. “It seeps into the very being of Congress, making it very difficult to get the parties to come to the table,” Binder said.

Rule changes that silence minority voices in some cases and give them disproportionate amplification in others also contribute to the difficulty of “getting to yes” on legislation, she said.

Binder said polls show the recent government shutdown has hurt the GOP more than the Democrats and that it will be interesting to see how the Republicans will brand their party heading into the 2014 midterm elections. One challenge for moderate Republicans is navigating the party primaries, where Tea Party challengers are angling to knock off incumbents.

Binder admitted she’s not optimistic that congressional polarization will lessen anytime soon. She said the climate of dysfunction has led to a system that operates on brinkmanship, where eleventh-hour deals are necessary to avoid crises and where stop-gap measures rather than long-term solutions are the norm.

During the question-and-answer session, Binder told the audience that gerrymandering of congressional districts, while controversial, accounts for a small fraction of the current polarization.

Asked about the prospect of a third party making an impact on the national level, Binder said that because the major parties write the electoral laws and create roadblocks that virtually eliminate third-party challengers, breaking the two-party monopoly is almost impossible. Independent candidates typically have greater influence at the local and regional levels, she said.