Missing Middle in Congress

The forecast is for a Katrina-sized, levee-topping storm as Republicans and Democrat come back to Washington, D.C., after the summer break. The Politico reports, “Congress set for showdown over ending war.” And that’s just the beginning. There are investigations to be pursued and scandals enough for a dozen cable television channels. A Democratic Congress will eventually pass a federal budget that will likely be vetoed by the Bush White House — leading eventually to a government shutdown. (Or so predicts The Politico.)

The federal government has a near infinite capacity for conflict, but there is no space for negotiation or compromise. The chart on this page tells why: The political middle has disappeared from Congress.

Quite simply, there is scant negotiation or compromise in Congress because there are very few negotiators or compromisers — fewer than at any time since the turn of the LAST century. The chart here was developed from a database built by political scientists Keith T. Poole, Nolan McCarty and Howard Rosenthal. The three have tracked votes of individual senators and representatives back through the years. What the social scientists have discovered is that since the end of World War II Congress has been polarizing. By the time the last Congress finally called it quits in 2005, fewer than ten percent of either the Senate or the House could rightfully be called moderates.

Over the past 60 years, Republicans as a whole have grown more conservative; Democrats have become more liberal. And there are fewer members in the middle, as you can see in the graph. No wonder there’s less talk and deal making in Congress (and more fighting). There are very few members of Congress who can cross between the two parties. There is no ideological middle in Congress, and as a result there is no place (or reason) to compromise.

It would be simple enough to blame Senators and Representatives for being ideological zealots, but it appears they are accurately representing their constituents. Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz collected answers from a huge survey taken at the time of the 2006 election. He then measured how those who voted for Democrats and for Republicans in House races differed on 14 issues.

Missing Middle in 2006 Election
The Cooperative Congressional Election Study surveyed 24,000 Americans who voted in November. Alan Abramowitz ranked answers on 14 national issues from very liberal to very conservative.

Republican voters disagreed with Democratic voters about nearly everything — abortion, global warming, the war in Iraq, gay marriage, privatizing Social Security. For example, 69 percent of Democratic voters chose the most strongly pro-choice position on the issue of abortion, compared with 20 percent of Republican voters; only 16 percent of Democratic voters supported a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, while 80 percent of Republican voters did; and 91 percent of Democratic voters favored governmental action to reduce global warming, compared with 27 percent of Republican voters.

When the positions on the 14 issues are placed on a graph, there is very little overlap between Republicans and Democrats. Just as in Congress, among American voters there is little middle ground ““ no area where backers of the two parties can agree.

There’s nothing wrong with the parties being different. They should be distinct reflections of differing political philosophies. What’s unusual is the degree of polarization, both in Congress and in the country. Congress hasn’t been this polarized in over 100 years, according to Poole’s calculations. Americans have formed two teams that disagree not only about foreign policy, but also on the morality of marriage and the funding of retirement plans.

As a result, there is no pressure from voters to find a compromise because voters are nearly as polarized their representatives. According to The Politico, Republican members of Congress left Washington, D.C., in August afraid of encountering an overwhelming anti-Bush, anti-Iraq backlash back home. They didn’t find it. “Everyone thought we were going to come back from recess with our tails between our legs, but we’re in the same place if not better,” one Republican official said.

Meanwhile the two sides are spending millions bolstering their positions. Americans Against Escalation has held hundreds of press conferences, distributed more than 30,000 yard signs and is running ads in several media markets. On the other side, Freedom Watch, fronted by former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, spent $15 million in 30 markets in support of the war.

Compromise? Forget about it.

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