How dealmaking gets done on Capitol Hill

In the new politics of Congress, deals are no longer fashioned by moderates, who vanished long ago, but by a few lawmakers on the left and right who have the respect, clout, and just enough pragmatism to surmount the culture of division.

Illustration by staff, from photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Lawmakers discussing an issue in Washington, D.C. This is the cover story in the Apr. 15 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

The 112th Congress, born in the tea party wave of 2010 and ending with President Obama's thundering reelection last November, was the least productive session in more than 60 years. Quietly, however, the 113th Congress is showing signs of getting more things done over the next two years – despite all the rancor beneath the rotunda.

The year started off with a bipartisan group of senior senators heading off a potentially "nuclear" showdown over a controversial Senate tool – the filibuster. In March, the long-delayed Violence Against Women Act moved from moribund to becoming law. More recently House and Senate lawmakers worked assiduously to keep the government funded through the end of the fiscal year, without the protests that have surrounded such measures in the recent past.

On nearly every major legislative initiative, at least some bipartisan activity is under way, even if it isn't yielding everything its sponsors would like. From strengthening controls on firearms to immigration reform to renewed stirrings of a "grand bargain" on taxes and entitlement programs, Congress is alive with the possibility of compromise. In other words, the dealmakers are resurfacing.

Why has this all been so hard?

Many of the obstacles to congressional deal-making have been building for years and aren't peculiar to Washington's current dysfunction. The sharp divide among lawmakers reflects in part the polarization on a wide range of policy and cultural issues that exists among the voters who sent them there.

The positions are hardened by deep-pocketed advocacy groups with ideological focuses as intense as they are narrow. Such groups make departing from the party line more dangerous than ever. The increasing amount of money needed to run for Congress also means lawmakers spend more time fundraising and less time studying issues or forging relationships with colleagues, the chassis on which dealmaking is built.

Complicating the impulse to compromise today is the frequency with which Capitol Hill is experiencing "wave" elections. Several electoral drubbings – Democratic triumphs in 2006 and 2008, the Republican resurgence in 2010 – have fed a sense among new members that any concessions on the issues that brought them to power would betray their constituents. While these transformative elections usually happen about once every decade, the recent cluster has created cliques of lawmakers with seemingly narrow mandates to an extent rarely seen in US history.

Members elected in such waves "are really not going to make deals that go against what the people who put them there want [them] to do," says former Rep. Steven LaTourette (R) of Ohio, a centrist. "On 'Obamacare,' you don't hear a lot of the 2010 class say, 'Well, let's save the good parts and jettison the rest.' It's 'repeal, repeal, repeal,' because that was the war drum on the campaign trail."

Given the tough constraints, today's congressional dealmakers aren't coming from either party's moderate wing, as many of them have in the past. Those lawmakers have either been defeated or have left office on their own, out of frustration with the toxic atmosphere on the Hill or fear of a primary challenge. Instead, it's up to lawmakers respected on both the left and right, like Republicans Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin or Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland, to get things done.

"If you're waiting for the moderates to compromise," you're going to be waiting quite a while, says former Sen. Joe Lieberman (Ind.) of Connecticut. "There are not enough left."

Getting those on either end of the spectrum to sit down together can be aided by what might be called political entrepreneurs, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, legislators willing to tackle sensitive issues such as immigration and Social Security before their parties are willing to do the same. But bringing disparate politicians together on new ideas is another matter. That is now often done through old-fashioned bargaining in the backroom, where lawmakers can make the kind of concessions key to compromise.

"Part of the value [of such groups] is they are working on the outlines of what a bargain on any issue would be before it hits the media," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University. Bipartisan gangs "give some kind of signal to other party members that it's OK" to depart from orthodoxy.

The public's general disdain for gridlock and voters' outspokenness on individual issues are other factors that may force more compromise. "Sometimes dealmakers gain strength when there is some kind of social pressure to do something," says Mr. Zelizer.

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Editor's note: This series on congressional dealmakers will continue through the remainder of the week.

Wednesday: Sen. Lindsey Graham

Thursday: Sen. Tom Coburn

Friday: Rep. Luis Gutierrez

Saturday: Rep. Paul Ryan and Rep. Chris Van Hollen

Sunday: Sen. Charles Schumer

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