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In 'Partisan Divide,' Former Congressmen Look For Answers


Rarely has a newly sworn Congress faced a lower bar, a softer standard by which to be judged. Can the 114th Congress pass a few bills that get signed into law and that address national problems? Can they do it without taking the country to the brink of government shutdown or default? Well, the partisan divide that impedes legislation and compromise is much remarked upon, and it's also the title of a new book, a collaboration between two former congressmen who analyze how we got to this place and how we might escape it. They are Republican Tom Davis, who represented a district in northern Virginia for 14 years, welcome to the program.

TOM DAVIS: Thank you. Good to be here.

SIEGEL: And Democrat Martin Frost, who served for 26 years representing the Dallas-Fort Worth area.


MARTIN FROST: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: Both of you reached leadership positions. You each were a chair of your party's Congressional Campaign Committee. And in your book, "The Partisan Divide: Congress In Crisis," you would agree about many things. You disagree about some others.

Tom Davis, I'd like to start with a point that you make. Tip O'Neill's famous adage, all politics is local. You say, no longer true.

DAVIS: Well, it's not true in national legislative elections. And the biggest change since Tip O'Neill's time - he was right in his time - is the parties today are ideologically sorted.

SIEGEL: So someone of the wrong party who endeavors to bring stuff back to the district and do things for its constituents just may not help?

DAVIS: Doesn't help.

SIEGEL: Martin Frost, do you agree with that?

FROST: I agree with it. When people vote under the current system, they're really voting party. They're not voting individual. And the reason that we were able to get things done, I believe, in Congress in the past was, we had a lot of individuals who understood their districts, understood it was in their interest to compromise with the other side to accomplish something. Now there's no incentive to compromise.

SIEGEL: What you're saying is a corollary to the fact that whereas when we were kids, the parties seemed to make no ideological sense - there seemed to be odd coalitions or groups of people - now, Tom Davis, the parties have a certain consistency to them.

DAVIS: They do. They're actually - look, you have a lot of smart members, but when it comes to their voting patterns, once they get to Congress they stay within their party box because there's punishment if you go outside. And one of the reasons for this is there's so many single-party districts today where the only race that matters is the primary election. The general elections are nothing but a constitutional formality they have to go through.

SIEGEL: One thing you write about in the book a lot is how we got to the point of having so many districts that are a lock for one party or the other. And Martin Frost, I'd like you to first of all describe how I think with the best of intentions the Voting Rights Act came to create a political map that disadvantages Democrats?

FROST: Well, the Voting Rights Act, justifiably, led to the creation of African-American districts in the South where almost none had existed before. What happened was the Republicans - and with using very clever legal and political strategy - what they did was to form coalitions in some cases with black legislators who were upset that Democrats had not previously drawn Democratic Congressional districts. And now the South is almost entirely Republican, except for a relatively small number of African-American districts.

DAVIS: Martin takes the Democratic bend. I mean, do you need a Voting Rights Act for gerrymandering today? You have to ask that 50 years later, where you have black Democrats elected from decidedly white districts. You have whites elected from black districts...

FROST: A few. A few.

DAVIS: ...You have an African-American president. Is this even needed? Because you're still going to find in gerrymandering money to pack Democrats and sometimes that's going to mean you're packing African-Americans.

SIEGEL: How about that question, Martin...

FROST: Robert, if I could - because this is very important. Tom and I have argued that you really need to have bipartisan commissions draw these districts so that neither party has a distinct advantage and let the voters then decide who the best people are.

SIEGEL: What about money? What was the - Tom Davis, what is the current situation in terms of funding? Is it really affecting the way the economy's...

DAVIS: Well, you know, look - of course it does. Money always affects outcomes. I'm not going to argue whether it should or it shouldn't. But it always affects it. And every attempt that Congress has made to curb it, the money always comes its way back in the system. And a lot of unintended consequences occur. Today, interest groups are more powerful than ever. It is a messed-up system by, you know, every measurement that you can think of and the parties have basically been disadvantaged. The money that used to go to the parties, the so-called evil soft money, is now out in the wing. So it's gone from the parties, which were a centering force in American politics for 200 years, to the wings.

SIEGEL: So from what I'm hearing from the two of you - a Democrat and a Republican - if I'm a member of the House, say, it's very likely that number one, I'm more concerned about a primary challenge from within my own party than I am about the opponent from the other party who might run against me. And I might be more concerned about the interest groups that come and spend tremendous amounts of money on House races, what they're going to say about the race than what my own party might say.

DAVIS: Bingo. That is exactly the problem. The money now can come in large chunks from an interest group in a primary whereas the member has to raise it in small increments at a time. And members live in terror of this. And I have literally sat on the House floor where members said, I don't want X group coming after me, I'm going to vote this way.

FROST: And Robert, there is - it's a real interesting part of this. Because not that many members actually lose in primaries, but they all live in the fear of a primary challenge. And I know Republican members from my state of Texas who are very fine people and who would love to compromise, but they are - they live in mortal fear of a far right-winger running against them in the Republican primary. And so they don't move to the center, they stay on the far fringes. And so while they may not be defeated, these groups influence their conduct and make it more difficult for people to compromise.

DAVIS: Well, you've always had that. But the combination of having these single party districts and now with the money being out, with the ideological groups, this has just been combustible. And it makes it very difficult for good people to do good things.

SIEGEL: Well, Tom Davis and Martin Frost, both former members of Congress. Tom Davis, Republican of Virginia and Martin Frost, Democrat from Texas. Thank you very much for talking with us.

DAVIS: Our pleasure.

FROST: Thank you.

SIEGEL: The book that Tom Davis and Martin Frost have written also with the help of journalist Richard Cohen is called "The Partisan Divide: Congress In Crisis." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.