My Way vs. the Highway
Why GOP House members like Steve Pearce have no incentive to compromise.
If you want to understand why Congress is broken, you need look no further than New Mexico Second District Rep. Steve Pearce.
No, this is not another jab at our favorite Congressional punching bag. In fact, Pearce deserves for recently defying his party leaders and joining with both New Mexico House Democrats to vote to defund the National Security Agency's phone metadata program. That effort narrowly failed, but it put the spy agency on notice that Congress may yet rein in its surveillance efforts where they impinge on ordinary Americans' privacy.
The problem with Congress in general and the US House in particular is that there are far too few such votes crossing party lines. Despite a recent poll showing nearly 7 in 10 Americans want politicians to compromise, the two sides have never been further apart ideologically than they were in the 112th Congress, according to Vital Statistics on Congress. The bipartisan experts behind those statistics agree that, while both parties suffer from ideological rigidity, Republicans like Pearce are more extreme and more to blame than Democrats.
Consider that in the last session Pearce voted with his party a whopping 92.1% of the time — yet that ranked him way down at 155th among 234 GOP House members in toeing the party line. Overall, among both parties, party-unity votes in the House totaled 72.8%, a sharp increase from 54.5% six years earlier.
Leading GOP figures such as Bob Dole, the party's 1996 presidential nominee, have made headlines lately arguing that their party has become too fixated on "purity." Dole was quoted as saying even Ronald Reagan couldn't be nominated by today's Republican Party. Mike Lofgren, who spent 16 years as a GOP Congressional staff member, has written: "The Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe."
As Ed Rogers, a top aide to both Reagan and George H. W. Bush, explained in the New York Times, "The GOP House has between 20 and 30 members who are ideological purists who think every issue and vote is black and white. Combine that with the members who fear a primary from the right, and you have maybe 60 votes that are hard to get. We have lost the art of governing in Washington. In the Congress no one is able to make and execute long-term plans."
Pearce, with little fear of a primary challenge, falls in a third, middle group of about 30 GOP House members that the Washington Post categorized as wanting to find a way to vote for measures such as the farm bill or immigration reform — but who wind up voting no half the time. Add these to the first two groups and it's difficult for the House leadership to deliver even when a compromise is hammered out.
The nut of the problem making the US ungovernable right now is that there's little incentive for Congressmen like our Steve Pearce to compromise. Only 16 current House Republicans represent districts carried by Obama in 2012. Even as New Mexico overall went strongly "blue," Pearce's Second District went for Romney by 52%-45%, actually going more "red" than McCain's less than two-point margin four years earlier.
Meanwhile, despite a barrage of criticism leveled at Pearce by the state Democratic Party, Democrats have been unable to field a credible challenger. In 2012, Pearce clobbered Evelyn Madrid Erhard by nearly 40,000 votes, outrunning Romney with 59.1%. Barring redistricting after the 2020 census that might put more northern New Mexico Democrats into his district, Pearce can safely plan on holding his seat until he feels like retiring and jumping into the lucrative lobbyist pool.
If you think of the "oil patch" that makes up much of the Second District as being more like Texas than it is like Taos, Pearce fits right in with another demographic reality of the current dysfunctional Congress: Two-fifths of House Republicans come from the 11 states of the former Confederacy, including Texas. These 97 members (98 if you count Texas-born Pearce) are "almost uniformly opposed to negotiation of any kind with Democrats," notes the Times.
Nor are House Republicans particularly concerned over the long-term viability of their party or the desire to recapture the White House — motivations that might lead them to compromise, for example, on immigration. As GOP pollster Bill McInturff puts it, "At an individual level, they are acting as rational actors, on the basis of their own perceived political interests.... The rational political incentive for most elected Republicans is to be sure they don't face a primary challenger."
Long-time readers of this page may recall that we pilloried Harry Teague, the Hobbs Democrat who kept Pearce's seat warm for one term when the Republican sought to step up to the US Senate, for failing to vote with his party. Teague's refusal to support Obamacare despite his campaign promises was the last straw. Aren't we criticizing Pearce now for toeing his party's line, as we dinged Teague for not doing?
We don't expect Steve Pearce to suddenly abandon his principles and start supporting Obama's programs. That's not how representative democracy works. Teague ran as one thing and acted as another — hence our disappointment. (Keep in mind, too, that Obamacare strongly resembled programs that moderate Republicans, including their 2012 presidential nominee, once advocated. The political center has moved so far to the right, as Dole pointed out, that when Democrats mindlessly tag along there's no counterweight for genuine compromise.)
But there's a difference between keeping your campaign promises and shutting down the government or defaulting on the nation's debt when you can't get 100% of your way. Play the game hard, yes. Take the ball and go home, no.
We don't recall, for example, Pearce campaigning on a promise to gut the food stamp program that one in five New Mexicans rely on. But that's the extreme position he and 215 fellow Republicans (joined by zero Democrats) took in July. Unfortunately, many of those food-stamp recipients will still vote for Pearce in 2014, as will many Hispanics even if he opposes the immigration bill.
To be fair, "compromise" is often in the eye of the beholder. Despite the recent Washington Post/ABC poll finding overwhelming generic support for compromise in Congress, when people were asked about specific topics such as immigration, their appetite for actual compromise faded. As Post columnist Chris Cillizza puts it, "People LOVE the idea of compromise in theoretical terms but love it much less when the conversation gets more specific." Too often then, "compromise" means you giving in and voting for my extreme position.
This is not one of those problems for which we have a "let's all be reasonable" solution. Ideally, the US electorate in 2014 or 2016 would stop dividing our government and give one party or the other a clear shot at fixing what's wrong with the country. Maybe if Congressional Republicans go too far this fall in their zeal to slash spending and undo Obamacare (40 pointless votes for repeal and counting), shutting down the government and/or triggering default, that will be a wake-up call for voters.
It's unlikely to dislodge our Steve Pearce, however. And until he has a reasonable fear of that happening, he has no incentive to be part of the solution in Washington instead of part of the problem.
Just Saying No
Voters torpedo Grant County's wish-list tax increase.
Apparently Grant County voters don't have much use for the powers-that-be who wanted them to "just trust us" with a $10 million bond issue and gross receipts tax increase. Despite the backing of county, town and university officials and near-fawning media coverage beyond these pages, the "quality of life" measure was rejected last month by a two-to-one margin. In preliminary results from the special mail-in balloting, 4,134 voted against the tax increase to only 1,923 "yes" voters.
As we warned in this column back in June ("Regressive 'Progress'"), the gross receipts tax hits hardest those with the least ability to pay, while also penalizing small businesses. The five-project wish list that would have been funded was cooked up with inadequate public input and only back-of-the-envelope cost calculations. In proposing a $4 million movie multiplex, little heed was paid to the cautionary experience in just such a project by Luna County, only a few miles down Hwy. 180. Other critics noted the lack of a "sunset" provision on the tax increase.
Grant County voters, we think, showed greater prudence and foresight than the authorities who dreamed up this scheme. If there was also a whiff of arrogance in the "we know best" statements of proposal advocates, that didn't play well with the "little people" who would have had to foot the bill.
All the same, we applaud those authorities for getting together across town, county and university lines and thinking big. Let's hope as the dust settles that same cooperative spirit can be applied to a fresh look at true area economic development. We'd also urge the powers-that-be to take a more overtly open approach to identifying public priorities. And whatever comes next, increasing taxes should be the last resort — not the first. Grant County voters, in their collective wisdom, have made that resoundingly clear.
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.
PO Box 191
Silver City, NM 88062