Breaking the D.C. Gridlock

The primary election process and corporate financing are at the root of what ails Washington, say two former congressmen
Martin Frost and Tom Davis at Tufts
“We both are students of the process,” said Martin Frost, left, with Tom Davis. “We believe in our government; we love our country, and we want our government to function better.” Photo: Matthew Healey
April 27, 2015

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It’s unusual for Democrats and Republicans in Washington to agree on much these days. But while former congressmen Martin Frost (D-Texas) and Tom Davis (R-Va.) still have differing opinions on the issues, they are united about what is causing gridlock inside the Beltway and what can be done about it.

The co-authors of The Partisan Divide: Congress in Crisis (Dover Publications, 2014), Frost and Davis offered prescriptions for remedying the ongoing political stalemate when they spoke at Tufts on April 22 as part of the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series.

Launched last fall, the series brings diverse leaders from a range of fields and perspectives to campus to discuss public issues. Previous speakers have included U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, political columnist Matt Bai, A90, and Scott P. Brown, A81, the former Republican senator from Massachusetts.

As former chairs of the Democratic and Republican congressional campaign committees who have a combined 40 years of service in Congress, Frost and Davis have witnessed across-the-aisle cooperation cede to ideological impasses—and have bemoaned the consequences.

“Only about a fifth of voters between the ages of 19 and 29 participated in last November’s election—part of a decades-long record of low voter participation by young people,” said Alan Solomont, A70, A08P, the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service in introducing the speakers. “We know that some of this disengagement is due to disenchantment with national politics and especially with the partisan gridlock that has characterized Congress. Our speakers today understand how corrosive this state of affairs is to our democracy.”

Small Numbers, Big Influence

Frost and Davis focused on flaws in the election process as the root of the current troubles. One major problem, they said, is primary elections, in which just a small number of people vote, and those who do are generally ideologues. This scenario gives disproportionate influence to people on the far right and far left of the political spectrum.

“The primary race becomes the only race that really matters, and members seeking reelection orient their voting records, their rhetoric and all their activities toward primary voters, because they are the ones who can get them elected,” Frost said. “They live in mortal fear that someone from the far right is going to run against them in a low-turnout primary.” Their votes in Congress take that into account, making it even more difficult to achieve compromise, he said.

Davis agreed, noting that “primary voters are a pretty narrow ideological slice of the electoral populace—the most liberal on the Democratic side, the most conservative Republicans, so primary voters don’t promote compromise, they punish compromise.”

To level the playing field, the former federal legislators recommend that Congress pass a law requiring all states to appoint non-partisan commissions to draw the congressional districts to avoid gerrymandering. “There are five states that have this law now, and they do a better job of creating congressional districts where both parties can compete” on equal ground, Frost said.

Extreme ideologies often result in actions that put party ahead of country, Frost and Davis said.

Moderator Jeffrey Berry, the Skuse Professor of Political Science at Tufts, asked the speakers to offer their perspectives on the recent letter that 47 Republican senators sent to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other Iranian leaders, warning that Congress could revoke any nuclear deal President Obama makes with that country.

“Historically in this country we have said that politics stops at the water’s edge, but this is no longer the case,” Frost said. “Congress feels it needs to play a role, but the question is what the appropriate role should be.”

The problem, Davis said, is not that there isn’t precedent for congressional involvement in international affairs, but that actions being taken are “many degrees higher than what anybody has done before.

“There is no price paid any more by people who are continuing to stretch the lines and create more polarization,” Davis said. “We are the only country I can think of—and this the only time in history—when a representative can get up in the middle of the State of the Union and yell ‘You lie’ at the president and then raise $1 million in election funds the next week.”

The Root of All Evil

Money is a huge problem in the American political system, said Davis, who blames the Supreme Court ruling that money equals speech, allowing corporations to funnel as much money as they want to political action committees in order to influence state and federal elections.

“Prior to the McCain-Feingold Act passed 15 years ago, campaign donations could be given to political parties directly, and they had to report every penny of it,” Davis said. “McCain-Feingold took the money away from political parties and channeled it out to the extreme PACs, so it has weakened the equalizing role of political parties. Even I didn’t understand how far this could go.”

Anyone who watches the annual the State of the Union address can tell the country is divided, Davis and Frost said. In the past, Democrats and Republicans would vie for the aisle seats so they could shake the president’s hand as he walked to the podium.

“But in the past few years, the Democrats have both sides of the aisle, and the Republicans don’t get near it,” Davis said. “It’s not personal animosity. It’s that [Obama] is radioactive to their political base.”

Frost and Davis wrote their bipartisan book to signal that America’s political system must change so voters can express their will more clearly, consistently and easily. The country and the democracy must come first, the congressmen said.

“We both are students of the process,” Frost said. “We believe in our government; we love our country, and we want our government to function better.”

Gail Bambrick can be reached at gail.bambrick@tufts.edu.