In September, America's 435 House members returned to Washington from their summer recess. After the attenuated debt-ceiling standoff, Congress' approval rating had plummeted to 11 percent (and would soon fall further, to 9).
House Republican leaders saw a silver lining. Maybe, they told each other, the intransigent conservatives in the GOP conference — including the 87 freshmen who had ridden the tea-party wave to victory in 2010 — would get an earful from their constituents about the need to compromise now and again. Maybe all of the previous session's saber-rattling brinkmanship would magically dissipate, and the House would show an appetite for governance.
Why didn't that happen? Because when Republicans went home in August, they convened town halls that were attended by the same tea-party activists who had elected them — and who now wanted to know why their congressmen had reneged on the campaign pledge never to raise the debt ceiling. Meanwhile, House Democrats spent the summer listening to progressives complain bitterly about how President Obama had caved during the debt-ceiling negotiations.
Neither party returned to Washington in any mood to reach across the aisle. And so they haven't — and likely won't.
It's a dismaying paradox that the nation's most democratic institution — the governmental body maximally hot-wired to public sentiment — is so deeply loathed. On April 9, 1789, just nine days after first convening, the House threw open its doors to the public, even as the Senate continued to do its business in private for six more years. Throughout most of the 20th century, the lower chamber was a marvel of dispatch and social enlightenment compared with the obstinate Senate.
Even when Newt Gingrich and his 73 GOP freshman acolytes took back the House in the 1994 midterms, the brash new speaker worked extensively with President Bill Clinton on welfare reform and pro-growth policies. After the House Democrats reclaimed power following the 2006 election, new Speaker Nancy Pelosi immediately went to work with the Bush White House on legislation to raise auto fuel-economy standards while seeking common ground on comprehensive immigration reform.
Just a few years later, such legislative partnerships seem unimaginable, not to mention politically lethal. For this disturbing near-overnight change in ethos, it makes sense to blame the House's ruling party — and in particular Speaker John A. Boehner's inability to tutor his GOP colleagues on the realities of divided government. Then again, when Republican Paul Ryan offered up his budget with its controversial Medicare "premium support" scheme both this year and in 2011, Democrats failed to parry with their own serious entitlement-reform plan. Instead, they gleefully seized upon the Ryan budget as political fodder, declaring that the Republicans would "end Medicare as we know it."
Perhaps, as Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann assert in their new book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks, today's legislative paralysis owes itself primarily to the Republican Party's rightward drift. Yet when the Democrats controlled both the legislative and executive branches in 2009, they responded to a recession-battered climate not with a steady stream of jobs initiatives, but instead with an agenda tailored to please their progressive base, including a cap-and-trade bill that stood no chance of passage in the Senate and a mammoth health-care plan that today few Democrats are willing to defend. Like the Republicans, Democrats are content to govern provided they can do so on their own ideological terms.
Will 2012 prove to be a referendum on the performance of the Republican-controlled House? Despite the lower chamber's miserable public standing, I suspect that most incumbents will manage to dodge the voters' wrath. Partly this is because of the fact that the presidential campaign will shape much of the season's electoral dynamics. But I also think that two other factors are necessary to change the recalcitrant behavior of the House.
The first is redistricting reform. Most state legislatures are given the decennial task of redrawing their congressional districts — and, unsurprisingly, they do so in a way that favors that state's ruling party. The result has been an increasing number of deep-blue or deep-red districts and fewer swing districts, which translates into Democratic and Republican congressmen who respond only to their political base and are unmotivated to compromise. Legislation that assigns redistricting to bipartisan commissions would be a welcome remedy.
The other political stimulus would be the emergence of a third party. If moderates and independents were given a viable alternative to the two parties on either end of the ideological spectrum, the ensuing threat to the livelihoods of Democrats and Republicans might spur them to compete for the votes residing in what Clinton once termed "the vital center." Previously obstinate congressmen would become actual legislators overnight.
Still, these are long-shot measures. In the end, the best way to change the House's embarrassing performance is for the American people to make their unambiguous sentiment known. They'll have that opportunity on Nov. 6.