How can Washington bridge its ‘Partisan Divide’?

Former congressmen Martin Frost, a Democrat, and Tom Davis, a Republican, say that money, media and gerrymandering are at the root of American political polarization. They join Judy Woodruff to discuss their new book, “The Partisan Divide,” and some suggestions for ending political gridlock.

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    The Republican-controlled Congress is back in session, preparing to do battle with the Democrat who controls the White House. But does a divided government have to be a partisan government?

    We listened in last week as Democratic pollster Peter Hart gathered a focus group in Aurora, Colorado, to talk about whether the divide in Washington can be bridged. The event was sponsored by the Annenberg School of Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

    Here's a sampling of what the voters had to say.

  • SUSAN BRINK, Consultant:

    With a Democratic president and a Republican Congress, I'm afraid there is going to more of a stalemate than anything else.

  • MILDRED FREENEY, Retired Sociology Professor:

    If nothing was being done before, changing the cast of characters probably won't create any big dramatic change, because there will be that infighting that we can't go across the aisle, we can't smile or touch or talk to someone that looks different, walks different, talks different.

  • MAN:

    I don't know. I think you're going to actually get more done.

  • PETER HART, Hart Research Associates:

    OK. How many agree?

    I think this new Congress, Congress and president may get more done. How many say I agree with Rick's statement?

  • WOMAN:

    I'm right in the middle of that.



    So I'm not getting a lot of people jumping up and saying, there's going to be more done.

  • CHARLIE LOAN, Program Manager:

    They're politicians. They're out for their own agenda, it seems like.

    From what I have seen the last several years, I feel like we're in kind of a do-nothing mode for at least the next two years, because anything that the president wants to do, Congress is going to disagree with, and vice versa.


    A do-nothing mode, indeed.

    So, for a deeper look at what's causing the gridlock, Judy Woodruff sat down recently with two former lawmakers from opposite sides of the aisle.

    Democrat Martin Frost and Republican Tom Davis are the authors of a new book, "The Partisan Divide."


    Former Representative Martin Frost, former Representative Tom Davis, we thank you both for joining us.

    MARTIN FROST, co-author, "The Partisan Divide": Our pleasure.

    TOM DAVIS, co-author, "The Partisan Divide": Thank you.


    So there's been so much already said and written about what's wrong with Congress, how divided it is, how polarized it is.

    What made the two of you think you had something to add to this debate that we feel like we're hearing every day?

    Martin Frost?


    Well, we're a disappearing breed. We're — I was a moderate Democrat. He was a moderate Republican.

    Tom and I have always seen eye to eye on a number of things, not on every substantive issue. But we thought we had something to say. And somebody needed to say it.


    I don't think anybody has talked about why it's the way it is.

    We know it's been dysfunctional, but nobody has looked at really what the root causes for that are, that there are really external factors that are affecting members' behavior. So, we went into the roots of that, which have really just transpired over the last 15 years.


    And what would you say the main…


    The single-party districts. And it's — that's three factors that go into that, clearly gerrymandering, residential sorting patterns in the Voting Rights Act.

    And then complementing that are now a very ideological media. These are business models where people now cater to certain audiences and feed them what they want to hear. And they have taken the message away from political leaders and carry the messages in many cases, and the Internet, too. And, finally, the maybe now has moved away from the parties after campaign finance reform.

    And then, with Citizens United, it's on steroids. The money is now out on the wings on the right and the left and not with the parties.


    And, Judy, what has happened too is that because of one-party districts, people are looking over their shoulder.

    Republicans are worried about someone running from the far right in the primary. Democrats are worried that they might have a challenge from the far left in the primary. And so it's not that they lose a primary, but they change their voting pattern to prevent a primary opponent. And that makes it hard to compromise.


    Right. And you do write a lot about redistricting, so-called gerrymandering.

    I'm interested in a number of things. One is, Tom Davis, you write a chapter about the parliamentary effects, the nationalizing of American politics. We're used to hearing Tip O'Neill say all politics is local. So what do you mean by this?



    Well, in legislative races today, basically, it is parliamentary. People are voting the party, not the person. You have very few individuals are now who are in a constituency that is not in their party's safe or marginal areas. We used to have lots of it in districts.

    We have a chart in the book showing how many Democrats were holding districts that were 70 percent or better for Reagan and Bush. Now there are none that are over like 52 percent. And the worst part is that not only are the voters acting in a parliamentary fashion, not splitting their tickets, voting straight party.

    But when members get to Congress, they're acting like it's a parliamentary system, which means, instead of being the minority party, being a minority shareholder in government, you're the opposition party, and you're no one else.


    And, Judy, we saw this in the last election, last November, in that you had Democrats who were running red states who tried to sell, they have really been good for their state, this is what they have done for the state.

    And voters could have cared less. They went in and they just voted straight ticket.


    Some of the remedies you suggest I think would surprise some people.

    Martin Frost, for example, you talk about bring back earmarks. These are ways individual members of Congress can insert something in a spending bill that would benefit some project that is important to them. Why is that a good thing?


    Judy, as long as they are transparent, as long as you put your name on it and it affects your district or your state, not something in another part of the country, it makes you a player, and it makes it possible then for the leadership to work with you and to help you and for you to then help them on a consensus piece of legislation.

    I mean, I was very proud. I got an earmark to build a mass transit system in Dallas called DART. If I hadn't gotten that earmark, we wouldn't have mass transit in Dallas today. I put out a press release about it, saying — and the business community loved it. That's what they wanted for the city.

    These had a lot of intrinsic value. They permitted members to not pass the buck on to an administration — to someone in the administration to make those decisions. They got the make the decisions. And it gave the leadership the opportunity then to work with members on critical issues.

    And perhaps that member then would find it in his or her heart to come to the middle and vote for some kind of consensus legislation.


    You spend a fair amount of time in the book also talking about money, about the influence of money, the changes that have happened with the reform of campaign finance laws.

    And one of the things you recommended is wanting to go back, basically, to donors being able to give money directly to the political parties. You're saying it was transparent before, we need to go back to that.

    But, you know, I have talked to folks about that who say the fact that the federal office holders or seekers could go to wealthy donors and say, give me lots of money, whether you're a Democrat or Republican, even if it is transparent, why doesn't that invite corruption, is the question.


    Well, what do you think you have now?

    But, right now, you have interest groups that put out lists and target members who don't vote a certain way. The only reason you only had 70 members vote for aid after Hurricane Sandy was because several groups, Club for Growth, Heritage Action and the like, FreedomWorks, said we're rating this vote, basically threatened to go after members that voted for that kind of aid.

    It's worse today than it's ever been. And parties have been a centering force in American politics for 200 years. That money is going to go somewhere. And if you don't give it to parties in a transparent fashion, it's out on the wings in dark money that is not transparent.


    And yet…


    The money going to (c)(4)s right now…


    This is an outside group.


    Outside group — is not reportable. You don't have to — those groups don't report their donors.

    So we have the worst of all worlds now. Big money is going to forces that are not controlled by political parties that have their own agenda, whereas, if contributions went to parties, it would be fully disclosed.


    Don't any of these solutions, though, whether it's on the money side or redistricting, don't they all call for the kinds of changes either in the courts or the part of Congress that are just not politically realistic right now?


    Well, they do require Congress to act. That's correct.

    And the question is, will the public get so fed up with the current system that the public demands that Congress make some changes? We can't change the courts. You can't — to override a court decision, you need to amend the U.S. Constitution in most cases in this area. And you can't get two-thirds of both houses to amend the U.S. Constitution.


    And the courts — by the way, the Congress just spoke on this and added more money to the parties.

    In this last appropriation bill that passed at the end of the year, in the cromnibus, they added more money to the parties from individuals. They recognize this has to happen.


    We hear you both.

    The book is "The Partisan Divide: Congress in Crisis" from two former members.

    Tom Davis, Martin Frost, we thank you.


    Thank you.

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