Quote of the Day:
The Republican contest to avoid being House speaker, one of the most storied and powerful positions in American governance, should tell us that something in our politics has changed profoundly
— Christopher deMuth in today's Wall Street Journal
Fractiousness is nothing new to American politics, and yet it seems that ambitious members of Congress know they can't lead a fractured Congress and now running from the once powerful office that was held by Henry Clay, Joe Cannon, and Sam Rayburn. In an important piece headlined "The Decline and Fall of Congress," Christopher DeMuth gives a fascinating analysis of what has happened to Congress.
The fractious GOP Freedom Caucus, which will make being Speaker hell for whatever unfortunate Republican eventually is saddled with the job, is a sympton of a fracturing in politics and culture that has eroded Congress and most U.S. institutions, according to DeMuth. DeMuth writes:
The key is to recognize that the members of the Freedom Caucus are not stupid or deranged; they are smart and calculating. They do not actually imagine that closing down the government over the debt ceiling or Planned Parenthood or the particulars of another continuing resolution will extract policy concessions from President Obama. Instead they are avid for Promethean drama and opportunities for personal display—even if, or especially if, they are crushed in the process and the Washington establishment emerges stronger than ever.
Some of them may think they can shoot the moon, with a string of losses eventually producing an overarching victory (their Senate soul mate Ted Cruz sees this as his route to the White House). But for most, the spectacle of unbending opposition is not a means. It is an end in itself.
That they find such a course attractive, and can pursue it against the obvious interests of their party, is the latest instance of the “atomization” of American culture and politics. The term was first applied in the 1970s by the sociologist Robert Nisbet and the political scientists Anthony King and James Q. Wilson. Cultural individualism has worn down one mediating institution after another, from family to church to local community. Rising affluence and advanced information and communications technologies have done the same to network news, labor unions and the hierarchal corporation. Together they have disestablished political parties and Congress.
Today’s atomized politics is entrepreneurial on the supply side and issue-specific on the demand side. It is structured around the networked affinity group. Some groups are devoted to general ideas and principles—progressivism, libertarianism, constitutional restoration. Others are devoted to discrete issues and causes—the endless list would include women’s sports, persecution of Christians in the Middle East, Medicare reimbursement rates for cardiac surgeons, school-lunch requirements, mortgage preferences for veterans, and supporting or opposing fracking or the Export-Import Bank. As candidates and legislators, modern politicians work through the party system but depend primarily on affinity groups for support, funding and guidance, and integrate them into their personal PACs.
In the new scheme of things, according to DeMuth, we see that single-member activism replaces committee hierarchies. Members no longer become masters of the legislative process but instead serve the principles of the affinity group they represent. A byproduct of this is that members spend more time fundraising than in the past.
The Republican Party in Congress ends up fractured, while Democrats are able to get together and deliver the votes their president needs. Because they have become a collection of groups that are dependent on the government and want more government, the Democrats have more cohesiveness than the GOP. They are able to block most of what the GOP would like to do.
Whoever does become Speaker will have a tough job and he or she must convince the Freedom Caucus to play a long game that includes incremental changes, according to DeMuth. The Freedom Caucus, composed of "tightly networked with ideological affinity groups," however, regards compromise as corruption. DeMuth writes:
These political dynamics are well known to every member and are the reason that many ambitious Republicans fear the speakership. Whoever winds up in the post will need to convince the Freedom Caucus of two things: First, that a Congress of solo practitioners has become a powerful engine of executive-led government growth. They will have no prospect whatever of restoring limited government without first restoring a Congress that knows how to exercise its constitutional powers. Second, that two congressional majorities, acting cohesively under strong committee leadership, would have a good prospect of using incremental compromise for limiting rather than growing government.
This is an important take on what's happened to Congress. Discuss among yourselves.