By splitting control of Congress in the midterm elections, voters have handed Democrats and Republicans an opportunity to work together. Of course, the number of people in Washington who believe it will happen could fit in a phone booth, as party leaders tout their refusal to compromise on their core issues and the 2012 elections loom in the distance.
Still, as Capitol Hill transitions from campaigning, where the rhetoric gets heated, to the much harder task of governing, there is an opening for reason to take hold.
Let's hope that congressional leaders listen to the American people as a whole, rather than simply play to their core constituencies, because the spiraling polarization they're engaging in is clearly turning Americans off. This marks the third election in a row in which voters have rejected the party in power: in 2006 they gave the House and Senate to the Democrats, and followed that up in 2008 with the presidency; this year, of course, they've given the House back to the Republicans. Exit polls on Election Day showed almost identical majorities of voters holding negative views of both parties. The one message all voters seem to agree on is for politicians to stop the partisan clashes.
It's possible, of course, that voters are reacting to something other than the heated partisanship of the past decade. Watching a campaign, you can see the assembled crowds cheer loudest at the most intensely political statements. And the hard-fought battles of the last few elections seem to have led to a slight uptick in voter interest and turnout.
Yet many of the problems that Americans most closely identify with Washington are directly traceable to the bellicose politics to be found in Congress. The constant maneuvering for partisan advantage makes it supremely difficult to pursue responsible policies to meet our challenges. In a tension-filled environment, with constant scrapping for electoral advantage and a bitter response from activist political bases to any hint of compromise, politicians struggle to muster the political will to search for broadly acceptable remedies to the problems that beset us. They have an even harder time finding them.
The result is that Congress can't do its job properly. It is supposed to be the place where the diverse voices and needs of Americans, their workplaces, and their communities can all be heard, respected and taken into account when policy gets made. These days, however, the process either gets manipulated so that significant viewpoints can be elbowed out of the way or gets so poisonously partisan that no progress at all occurs.
Especially in the House, polarization tends to force the exclusion of the minority party from deliberations — the majority has the votes, and so controls procedures to keep the minority from participating. Republicans did this when they were in power, and Democrats did it after they took over. The result was the same in both instances: the minority got so incensed that it spent its time searching for ways to obstruct and frustrate majority rule.
Meanwhile, the Senate's intense partisanship has, among other things, yielded a judicial confirmation process that is long on rancorous debates over judicial philosophy and short on actual confirmations. The judiciary is being hobbled by congressional polarization.
Congress is also charged with ensuring that the federal government properly carries out the laws and remains accountable to citizens. Partisan maneuvering, however, focuses members on scoring political points rather than overseeing the implementation of the law.
It's worth pointing out that the polarization we've been seeing does not just hurt us at home. Faced with a host of challenges, from the rise of China to negotiating a new arms control agreement with Russia to combating international terror and dealing with North Korea and Iran, our policies need to be consistent and our nation unified. Both of these goals are near-impossible to attain when political leaders are constantly at loggerheads, even though each one knows full well that the country is stronger abroad when it conveys unity.
Watching all this, Americans are losing faith in their institutions of government. When the people who represent them appear incapable of resolving their differences and moving forward on broadly acceptable solutions to issues that they all agree need addressing — energy, health care, immigration, reining in spending — it's no wonder so many Americans mistrust politicians and government. And until our political leaders figure out a way of working cooperatively, they'll deserve that mistrust.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.