Breaking Through Gridlock In Washington

The Capitol Dome is seen near sunset in Washington, Monday, Sept. 29, 2008. In a stunning vote that shocked the capital and worldwide markets, the House on Monday defeated a $700 billion emergency rescue for the nation's financial system, ignoring urgent warnings from President Bush and congressional leaders of both parties that the economy could nosedive without it. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
For a long time now it seems as if gridlock has long been the order of the day in Washington, so when the fierce battle in Congress over the financial bailout finally ended with approval by both Houses this past week, we couldn't help but wonder what scars would be left. Martha Teichner reports our Cover Story:

The word was actually uttered in the halls of Congress this week: "Bi-partisan."

Majority Leader Steney Hoyer, D-Md., said, "An emergency like this calls for the courage to compromise."

"Compromise!" When was the last time you heard that word from a congressman?

Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., said, "The crisis requires all of us to put our country first and our ideology and partisanship aside."

Along the way to finally passing the bailout on Friday, members of the House of Representatives managed something uncharacteristic: they actually did come together.

The final vote was announced … but getting there was an exercise in political agony.

Democrat James McGovern of Massachusetts had it just about right: "It's hard to get anything done around here with a divided government."

According to a CBS News poll released this past week, only 15% of Americans approve of how Congress is handling its job. That's the lowest rating ever recorded, since CBS News started asking the question … more than thirty years ago.

The public's perception of its lawmakers being unable to get the country's business done is "business as usual."

"They have fought to a standstill on pretty much every major problem: energy, education, immigration, children's health," said journalist Ron Brownstein.

Brownstein's most recent book, "The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America" (Penguin), explains how Washington ended up paralyzed by partisanship.

"If you look at polling in the 1950s, there were a lot of reasons why people might be a Democrat or a Republican, but a specific set of ideological beliefs was not really part of it," he told Teichner.

"Now you go through the '60s and '70s with the social revolution, the cultural revolution, Vietnam, civil rights, gun rights, gay rights, abortion, all those issues rise, and we see a migration of moderate and liberal voters out of the Republican Party, and a migration, even larger migration of conservative voters out of the Democratic Party."

"What happened is, we lost the political center," said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind. "Extremists in both parties have risen to the ascendancy. Congressional districts have become overwhelmingly Democratic or overwhelmingly Republican."

"By design?" Teichner asked.

"By design, by conspiracy really, between the elected representatives, members of Congress and the state legislatures."

(Department of Interior)
For example, do California's congressional districts seem peculiarly shaped? Or Georgia's? There's a reason they've been carefully drawn - gerrymandered. The practice tends to protect incumbents who might have strong partisan or even extremist views.

In the entire House of Representatives, only 57 out of the 435 total seats are considered competitive in November.

But there's more to the gridlock story …

"More lobbyists, more money, evenly-divided country, more pressure, more media attention - all of which has racheted up the pressure in American politics," said Hamilton.

Elected in 1964, Lee Hamilton served in the House for 34 years.

"When I came to the Congress, we had an agricultural bill," he recalled. "We'd deal with three or four lobbying groups. Today, the agricultural bill will deal with 30 or 40 or 50 lobbying groups, much more involvement, and very intense involvement, and very strong pressure on the members."

Here's pressure: The financial, real estate, and insurance industries - those people who brought us the economic meltdown (and who stand to benefit from the bailout) - so far this year have contributed $339.6 million to party politics, supporting both Republicans' and Democrats' campaigns.

"The founding fathers didn't really expect there to be political parties," said Columbia University provost Alan Brinkley, "and they thought that governance would proceed through consensus. But it didn't take long for political parties to emerge."

A professor of history, Brinkley says gridlock characterizes the way Congress acts more often than not in its history.

"Probably the most important example of gridlock was the period leading up to the Civil War. There was absolute gridlock over the critical issue of the tensions between the North and the South, and the issue of slavery, and of course in that case the Union broke apart."

(John Magee)
In May 1856, infuriated by a speech made by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner opposing slavery, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks took his cane and beat Sumner unconscious.

Another catastrophic case of political gridlock came after the stock market crash of 1929, as the Great Depression deepened.

"The real moment of crisis, however, came in late 1932, early 1933, when the banking system began to collapse," said Brinkley. "This was after Roosevelt had been elected but before he was inaugurated."

Republican President Herbert Hoover, discredited, a lame duck, seemed incapable of acting. He pleaded with Roosevelt for a show of bi-partisan support. Roosevelt refused.

"Roosevelt's election broke the gridlock, and there were enormous Democratic majorities in Congress, and they were so panicked by what was happening, that they were willing to cede almost anything to the president."

In 1995, armed with a huge Republican majority, House Speaker Newt Gingrich found his name synonymous with gridlock.

He shut down the federal government in a confrontation with the Clinton administration over budget cutting.

The ideological fault lines that were drawn then lead directly to Republican Tom Delay's farewell address, when he resigned his House seat in 2006: "You show me a nation without partisanship, and I'll show you a tyranny."

An unapologetic endorsement of what has been called hyperpartisanship.

"Because partisanship, Mr. Speaker, properly understood, is not a symptom of a democracy's weakness," Delay said, "but of its health and its strength, esepcially from the perspective of a political conservative."

Hamilton, on the other hand, thinks exploiting division is no way to run the country.

"So the question becomes, how do you make that kind of a country work?" he said. "And the answer has to be accommodation and compromise, or you get gridlock."

Ron Brownstein said, "I think ultimately the president sets the tone for our politics."

Brownstein thinks the tone set during the Bush years only exacerbated the divide.

"It doesn't mean that when he leaves the next president will simply be able to bring everybody together," Brownstein said. "It will be a struggle for any leader."

A month before the election, both John McCain and Barack Obama seem to want to try.

"Whichever one wins will have the opportunity, if they're willing, to try to reach beyond their base and be president of the whole country and speak to all Americans," said Brownstein.

… Americans who seem ready for reassurance, not rancor.