Five-Part Series on Primaries
By Valerie Emmert
Part III: Why Congress Doesn’t Get Things Done
For the past two decades it seems like usually the Congress only passes meaningful legislation when either party holds enough seats to advance its own agenda. It looks like bipartisanship is dead. They don’t get along and they don’t get things done.
On one hand, the discord between the parties serves a purpose. By competing for the upper hand in a constant power struggle, politicians are compelled to expose each other’s misdeeds, thereby informing the public and keeping each other somewhat honest. Without this healthy competition, politicians might—and even now sometimes do—crawl into bed together and collude to hide each other’s wrongdoing. On the other hand, the unhealthy distorted mirror image of this built-in competition has manifested itself in an unwillingness of politicians to collaborate on legislation that might give the opposition an advantage in an upcoming election. While there are those who blame partisan primaries, it is actually gerrymandering and the big money of PACs that are largely responsible for this distortion of these otherwise healthy adversarial relationships.
We all know how expensive campaigning can be—especially on the state and federal level. Candidates most commonly accept money from PACs and wealthy individuals to afford advertising, staff, and mailings. The PACs usually collect money around an issue, such as gun rights, abortion, the environment, etc. Likewise, wealthy individuals tend to support a candidate in furtherance of their own interests, whether corporate or personal. It’s understood that in order to receive these monies, candidates pledge to support these interests if elected. Consequently, conflicts of interest are likely to develop between the national interest—or constituent interests—and the interests of the financiers. Politicians rarely vote against their financiers’ interests, lest it cost them campaign funds in the next election. Unfortunately, more often than not in such a conflict, the national or district interest loses.
The problem is further compounded by gerrymandering. In districts that are “safe” for one party or the other, there’s no incentive for a Representative to collaborate with the opposition on legislation as there is in more competitive districts. To make matters worse, since parties work hard to avoid spending resources in contested primaries, especially in “safe” districts where any nominee of that party is guaranteed to win, these less centrist politicians are unlikely to be challenged within their own party.
Reversing this trend will not be easy, but it is possible. One solution would be to redraw the U.S. House districts more competitively at the next opportunity, so that candidates must be more centrist to win in the General Election. Another solution would be to restrict candidates to accepting money from only those individuals who are eligible to vote in that district, which would prevent billionaires hijacking elections by financing candidates who, once elected, are beholden to the billionaire instead of to the electorate.