From The Dallas Morning News
Martin Frost spent more than a quarter-century representing North Texas in the U.S. House, earning a reputation as a thoughtful moderate. The former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has just published The Partisan Divide: Congress in Crisis, co-written with former Republican congressman Tom Davis of Virginia and veteran political journalist Richard Cohen. The book looks at the widening chasm between right and left in the halls of the U.S. Capitol, and the price our country is paying as a result.
Your book examines how those in Congress can’t get along, and why that’s a problem for the American people. But politics is nothing new in this country. How have things changed, and why is it so bad?
Our country doesn’t function well if Congress can’t function. Public opinion ratings for Congress are at record lows. That’s not good for democracy. Tom Davis and I present an interesting perspective because he was chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, and I was chairman of Democratic Congressional Campaign. We both are political moderates, and we would like to see Congress work together. It’s important for our country that the public fully understands why Congress has gotten into its current situation and that people like us make some constructive suggestions on how this can be changed.
What are your best suggestions?
Some of the main things that need to be paid attention to are the way congressional districts are drawn and also the current state of campaign finance laws. Because of extensive partisan gerrymandering, many districts are solid districts for one party. There’s no incentive for people in either party to compromise. State legislatures have drawn districts, often with odd shapes, to protect incumbents and have not drawn competitive districts that would potentially produce people more willing TO compromise. Our suggestion is for Congress to pass legislation requiring states to appoint bipartisan commissions to draw congressional districts. You’ve had generally good results in states that have such commissions. They have tended to produce more swing districts where both parties have a chance. But incumbents like the current system rather than having districts that are more competitive.
Can’t we argue, though, that Congress is just a reflection of the electorate? Don’t we get the Congress we vote for?
Not necessarily. In 2012, Democrats collectively running for Congress got 1.4 million more votes than the Republicans did, yet the Republicans control Congress because of gerrymandering. That’s happened in the Democrats’ favor in previous years. The current congressional districts do not necessarily reflect the will of the public. The bigger issue is because these districts are safe districts and members face challenges in their party primaries, there is no incentive for a Democratic member in a strongly Democratic district or a Republican member in a strongly Republican district to compromise. That’s really not good for the country. You want to have a system that does, in fact, reflect the will of the public. As it is, the general election is a foregone conclusion in too many districts.
You talk about the gridlock stopping progress in this country.
There are a lot of things missing. We need to pass a major infrastructure bill to repair our highways and bridges and to provide more money for mass transit. That requires some give and take. Our infrastructure in this country in many areas is crumbling. Another issue that would require compromise is tax reform. People embrace the concept, but you have to meet in the middle somewhere.
There is also immigration reform. That’s an emotional issue, but something people in both parties agree needs to be done. Yet Congress can’t get it together. The last time we passed major immigration legislation was when I was in Congress in the mid-1980s. That required a lot of give and take. No one seems to want to move off their position currently. There is only so far the president can go in this area; there is a need for legislation. Many people in the business community want immigration reform. They want a guaranteed source of labor. They want some certainty in our laws. Yet Congress seems incapable of acting.
When I was in Congress we worked across party lines and passed welfare reform. It was tough. It was hard to do, and yet we actually passed it during the Clinton administration.
We are used to complaints about pork-barrel spending and earmarks. What’s the impact of that on states like Texas?
I’ll give you a classic example in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. When I was in Congress I got an earmark for the construction of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system. Absent the earmark, that would not have been built, and it’s proven to be one of the most successful light-rail systems in the country.
Earmarks should be totally transparent. In other words, the congressman should have to put his or her name on the project. And it ought to be a project that’s in the congressman’s own district or the senator’s own state. You could reform the system and it would make it easier to pass a major infrastructure bill because you would have a lot of people with some skin in the game.
You feel campaign finance reform is the bigger issue, though.
Congress passed legislation, the McCain-Feingold bill, in the early part of this century which took soft money away from political parties and forced it out to the extremes to these ideological groups. Under the old system, political parties could accept money from corporations and labor unions and wealthy individuals to use for party building and get-out-the-vote efforts and things like that. Those contributions had to be disclosed. What Congress did was take that money away.
Parties have basically played a centralizing role in American politics. They have helped keep the country somewhere in the middle. Congress forced the money out to the extremes. Now a lot of money is contributed to what are called C4 organizations. There is no requirement those contributions be disclosed. That is the so-called dark money in politics. So a lot of money previously spent by political parties is being spent by groups on the far right and the far left in a way it’s not disclosed to the public.
What we recommend is that Congress pass legislation that would require any organization, no matter how it’s organized, that spends money and mentions a federal candidate by name, whether it’s in support or opposition, to disclose all sources of revenue, and in a timely way. That’s the best you can do because the Supreme Court has taken the position you can’t limit what people can give. You’re not going to amend the Constitution to override the Supreme Court decision. But you could require that money be disclosed.
This Q&A was conducted, edited and condensed by Dallas Morning News editorial writer Rudolph Bush. Reach him at rbush@dallasnews .com. Reach Martin Frost at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Martin Frost is a member of Polsinelli's Public Policy Practice and can be reached at email@example.com)