Current and former members of Congress lament structural changes that discourage political discourse.
A host of changes to politics over the last two decades, from redistricting and gerrymandering to modifications of campaign finance laws, have decreased incentives to govern effectively said one current member and three former members of Congress at an event Wednesday at the George Washington University.
Those changes and their consequences have given rise to a series of never-ending purity tests, says former Rep. Al Wynn (D-Md.). “I came into politics with the understanding that you compromise to get things done….,” Mr. Wynn said. “As a result of redistricting, you end up with inter-party fights, and I view it as a fight between ideological members and pragmatic centrist candidates.”
Mr. Wynn added that SuperPACs and other outside groups made the changes worse with outsized spending and advertising campaigns that seek to nationalize every race, rather than focusing on local issues.
Mr. Wynn was among four panelists at the event co-hosted by GW’s Graduate School of Political Management and the U.S. Association of Former Member of Congress. Also on the panel were former Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), B.S. ‘63, former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.).
Mr. Stearns lamented that seniority, once viewed as an asset, was now treated as a liability in primary campaigns. “The longer you stay the more you are perceived to be part of the problem,” he said.
He was unseated in a primary challenge in a strongly Republican district, despite leading a high-profile investigation into a failed Obama administration stimulus program. “I didn’t have the spirit of a newcomer that’s going to change things,” he said. Mr. Stearns lost his primary to a political neophyte whose campaign centered around disgust for “career politicians.”
The waves of ideological members of Congress make it harder to govern or even execute the most mundane of tasks, the panelists said.
Mr. Dent cited the recent deal that President Donald Trump struck with congressional Democrats over the debt ceiling. “I told colleagues disparaging the president’s deal that he cut the deal because you wouldn’t vote for a plan,” Mr. Dent said. “You empowered Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, so It’s your fault. That’s how it works here,” he said. Mr. Dent noted that hard-liners voted no on the legislation even after receiving several concessions in earlier unsuccessful drafts of the bill.
More broadly, the idea that politics is a contest or sport that needs to be won at all costs, rather than a duty to the nation and its citizens has poisoned politics, panelists argued.
“The biggest objective is who won today or who won the vote, not what did we get done and who benefits. Our democracy is not a game, and that’s the problem,” said Ms. Lincoln.
According to the panel, a significant key to reforming the political environment is increased civics and political education. Several members noted that constituents misstated or misunderstood where they worked or what issues they supported. “They know what they hear,” said Ms. Lincoln, adding that the increased diversification of media means that citizens can get news from a variety of outlets that cater to their own opinions.
All the panelists agreed that Congress must increase its ideological diversity if it is going to be successful in the future. “If you have a forest, and it’s all the same trees, any pest can come and ruin it. It’s important to have diversity for the chamber to function,” Ms. Lincoln said.