It is fashionable nowadays for pundits to decry the partisan polarization in Washington, and to bemoan how "broken" Congress is. Nothing will get done with such divided government, such conventional wisdom dictates. We're in for a long and bitter two years of legislative gridlock. I try to be an eternal optimist (while still staying within the bounds of reasonableness), and I can't help but wonder if this thinking may turn out to be wrong. Perhaps -- just perhaps, mind you -- the 113th Congress will be able to actually get a few important things done.
The odds may be long for such an outcome, but I see the situation as a lot more hopeful than it was two years ago. After the "shellacking" the Democrats took in 2010, things ground almost completely to a halt on Capitol Hill. But maybe the glacial ice is actually now thawing, one drip at a time.
The 112th Congress and the 113th Congress are similar, in a lot of ways. The Republicans still hold the House. The Democrats still hold the Senate, albeit with no supermajority of 60. The main players are still in place (leadership hasn't changed much except perhaps at the committee level). The dynamic, on first glance, would seem to be so similar that expecting the next two years to have a similar outcome as the past two years would be seen as the safe bet.
And yet, things are indeed different. The momentum has shifted from being at the Republicans back to the Democratic side. Democrats decreased the number of Republicans in both chambers in the 2012 election, and held on to the White House to boot. There are bigger differences than just sheer numbers, as well. First, the Tea Partiers' power is on the decline. John Boehner didn't have much choice for the past two years in letting the Tea Party have its own way in the House, on all sorts of silly issues, but this time around he can point to the 2012 election and say "you guys are killing the party with your extremism." How much this whip gets cracked is still a mostly-open question, but it does seem that the power dynamic has shifted between the Tea Party radicals and Speaker Boehner.
The other big wind at Democrats' backs is the changing demographic picture of the electorate. In 2012, Republicans got hammered at the polls by women and minorities. Extremism may play well with white males, but not so much with everyone else anymore. Smart Republicans have realized this, and are desperately trying to blunt the sharper edges of their party's platform. Again, it's an open question how successful this effort will be. Republicans have invested decades in social "wedge" issues, and they've stirred up their own base to such levels of frenzy that it may be a long time before things cool down appreciably (at least at the rank-and-file voter level) -- but smart Republicans know that what worked ten years ago just is not going to achieve the same results today. No matter what the Supreme Court rules on gay marriage and the Defense Of Marriage Act, I simply don't see Republicans trying to benefit from it in the 2014 midterms by hyping the issue on ballot initiatives. These days, that wedge cuts a different way than it used to, to put this another way.
Although all the leaders are in the same spots, the power dynamic has shifted. President Obama faces a Republican House and quick-to-filibuster Republicans in the Senate, but rather than 2011's triumphalist attitude, these Republicans are chastened and shaken by what just happened to them at the polls. The power struggle within the Republican Party has shifted as well, much more in favor of "establishment" Republicans and away from the Tea Party. Obama himself has changed, and has adopted much better tactics for negotiation. While one of them was technically the end of the 112th Congress, Obama has already chalked up two big legislative victories over Republicans in the past month -- raising tax rates, and postponing the debt ceiling problem.
Obama has realized that certain Republicans are going to both decry whatever negotiating tactics he uses, and they are also never, ever going to vote for any plan he supports -- no matter what. Instead of trying to placate them, Obama is now ignoring them. He is, instead, reaching out to the more-moderate Republicans who fear for their party's future if the radicals are allowed to keep control. This is already having a profound effect. The biggest is John Boehner realizing that clinging to the "Hastert Rule" (of not moving any legislation to the floor that a majority of his caucus supports) is, realistically, no longer a politically-viable option. The other big change is that even Republican Party favorites are now reconsidering long-held extremist positions on things like gun control and immigration. Republicans are now considering voting for things they have been actively demonizing for years. They've already allowed an income tax rate hike to pass -- for the first time in 20 years -- and it looks like at least some sort of bill is entirely possible on both the immigration and gun control fronts as well. Lower-profile issues such as the Violence Against Women Act also seem to have better prospects of passing.
That is a very big shift from where the 112th Congress started out. It is a sea change, in fact, in Republican thinking. It is the realization that "just saying 'no' to everything" is not seen as a valid political stance by much of the public anymore.
I realize that is still "early days." I realize that the power struggle between the establishmentarians in the Republican Party and the Tea Partiers is in no way over, and the outcome is decidedly not a foregone conclusion. And I fully realize how different even the establishment Republicans' agenda is from what President Obama would like to achieve.
But I still see a lot of signs for optimism. Republicans should get back to the idea of being a "big tent" party with divergent opinions, and allow members of Congress to vote for or against bills according to their conscience rather than what the party whip dictates. Most Republicans could still be proud to cast their vote against things they disagreed with, but some things could still move forward. Bills passed with Democrats and a few handfuls of Republicans would, in the end, be better for conservatives than no bills passing at all. Republicans could indeed make their mark on such bills and be sure that enough conservative ideas would be included to entice the votes needed for passage.
I know, after the past few years, that this may turn out to be laughably naive and far too optimistic. But I think the chances that the 113th Congress will actually get some major things done is one whale of a lot higher than the same chances two years ago. Republicans are scared of what just happened to them at the polls. They have an enormous stake (self-preservation, really) in rebranding their party for the American public. To do that, though, they've got to help get some things accomplished. With President Obama unable to run for office again, perhaps the fear of "handing Obama a legislative victory" will fade. Perhaps they'll realize that legislative victories make everyone in Washington look good to the vast majority of the American public, instead of just scoring points among your most partisan base.
What happens in the next two or three months should be indicative. Will Congress start doing its job again? Who knows... stranger things have happened (even in D.C.). I remain hopeful.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant