WASHINGTON — Why don't Washington lawmakers understand that the public hates Congress? Don't they worry that debacles like this week's supercommittee failure are likely to mean political peril for incumbents?
History shows that while voters may hate the institution, they rarely take it out on their own representatives. And the two political parties, largely controlled by their extremes, see stubbornness as a winning strategy.
"A lot of politicians feel the price of compromise is too high," said John Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California. "People may not like the institutions, but Republicans know they can blame Democrats, and vice versa."
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While Congress' public-approval ratings are at historically dismal lows, voter threats to punish incumbents has proven to be "an empty public threat," said Darrell West, director of governance studies at Washington's Brookings Institution, a center-left policy-research center.
The latest bout of voter ire was sparked by the failure this week of the 12-member Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to agree on how to cut at least $1.2 trillion from federal deficits over the next decade.
Each party's leaders were convinced that there's political gain in sticking firmly to their core principles — Republicans refuse to raise taxes, and Democrats refuse to make big cuts to entitlement programs like Medicare.
"Ultimately, the committee did not succeed because we could not bridge the gap between two dramatically competing visions of the role government should play in a free society, the proper purpose and design of the social safety net, and the fundamentals of job creation and economic growth," said co-chair Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, in a Wall Street Journal essay.
As fresh evidence that partisanship works, both parties point to 2010. Republicans, fueled by the grassroots tea party movement and their bitter opposition to President Barack Obama's economic stimulus and health care plans, elected 87 freshmen members of the House of Representatives and won control of the chamber.
Democrats could say their strategy worked, too, because they retained control of the Senate, where lawmakers have to appeal to broader constituencies than in House districts often drawn to maximum partisan advantage.
Ideological activists dominate both parties' voter bases — and hold their elected representatives to account. So do ideologues in the modern media of talk radio, cable TV and blogs. That all reinforces the two parties' persistent line-in-the-sand attitudes, which means it's unlikely that Congress will devise ways to ease the ailing economy before next year's elections.
It'll have several opportunities. When lawmakers return Monday from a Thanksgiving recess, they'll have about a month to decide whether to continue the expiring Social Security employee 2 percent payroll tax cut, extend extra unemployment benefits and stave off a huge cut in Medicare payments to doctors. In addition, funding for many government agencies runs out Dec. 16 unless Congress authorizes new money.
Next year promises a nonstop series of skirmishes. The Bush-era tax cuts expire at the end of 2012. Automatic spending cuts totaling $1.2 trillion — half from domestic programs and half from defense — will go into effect in January 2013, and efforts to make changes in those cuts are likely to begin in January.
As these battles unfold, the public is sending a loud message: compromise. Congress' approval rating was 9 percent in the Nov. 6-10 CBS News poll, matching its October low. Eighty-three percent disapproved of how Congress is handling its job.
"We have never had a situation like this," said Craig Holman, Capitol Hill lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
He and others had expected the supercommittee would get something done. So much had been arranged so it could succeed. The August debt reduction deal included an agreement that Congress would vote on any supercommittee-approved plan without it being subject to the Senate's usual extended debate. Two highly regarded private bipartisan commissions had educated politicians and the public on the choices. Financial markets sent strong signals that they wanted action.
Yet the grips of the far left and the far right paralyzed the panel, and sure enough, despite Congress' dismal approval ratings, the supercommittee collapse has triggered a new bout of partisan sniping.
"Republicans relentlessly sought to end Medicare as we know it by privatizing the program and putting seniors and future generations at the mercy of insurance companies," charged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "In addition, Republicans insisted on expanding President Bush's tax giveaways to millionaires, an approach that would have made our deficit problems bigger, not smaller."
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky voiced his own angry thoughts.
"In the end, an agreement proved impossible not because Republicans were unwilling to compromise, but because Democrats would not accept any proposal that did not expand the size and scope of government or punish job creators," he said.
These kinds of attitudes "just fuel the anger citizens have about Congress," Holman said. He predicted that 2012 will be an unusual election, one where people vote against incumbents.
Some disagree. Incumbents are "engaging in a tried-and-true formula," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, of blaming the other guy for Congress' inertia.
In addition, for an incumbent to be in trouble, he must face a well-funded challenger and represent the rare congressional district that hasn't been carefully drawn to maximize his partisan advantage. And often the incumbent is someone warmly regarded for helping constituents back home.
"People have learned you can be rigid and doctrinaire and still get elected," said West of the Brookings Institution.
The policy danger in avoiding serious compromise, though, is ever present. Financial markets, already nervous about the European debt crisis, plunged the day the supercommittee collapsed. Unemployment has been stuck around 9 percent all year.
What if, say analysts, things get worse and Congress remains stuck?
"What if for reasons we can't foresee we have an increase in interest rates?" wondered Steve Bell, senior director of the Economic Policy Project at Washington's Bipartisan Policy Center. "What if Europe goes into a recession? And what will happen if we don't do something about the payroll tax or unemployment?
"That's what people don't get."
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