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A New Kind of Gridlock: Why Congress Is More Broken Than Ever

Lawmakers can’t even seem to do small, bipartisan things anymore.
Image: Congress Struggles With Funding Repairs To U.S. Capitol Dome
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 28: A statue of George Washington stands in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol August 28, 2012 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. It has been reported that the dome of the Capitol has 1,300 known cracks and breaks leaking water to the interior of the Rotunda and needs restorations. The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved $61 million before the August recess to repair the structure. On Monday, Committee on Rules and Administration chairman Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) called on Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) to support the repairs. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)Alex Wong / Getty Images

Why this gridlock is different from past gridlock

Yes, Congress has typically been divided over ideology (liberal vs. conservative) or geography (North vs. South, big states vs. small ones). And, yes, partisan flare-ups in the summer of an election year are hardly new. But here is why this Congress appears more broken than past ones: It can’t even seem to do the small, bipartisan things anymore. Case in point is the legislative dysfunction surrounding the responses to 1) the unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, and 2) reforming the VA hospitals across the country. Almost every member -- Democratic or Republican -- said the situation at the border was a humanitarian crisis that needed a response. But passing emergency spending (between $2 to $4 billion in aid) has become such a difficult lift, and looks less likely by the day. Last month, every member of Congress said VA hospitals needed to better serve veterans, and the Senate (by a 93-3 vote) and House (426-0) passed legislation to reform these hospitals. But they’ve been unable to come together in a conference committee to reconcile the two bills. Folks, we’re not talking about overhauling the nation’s health-care system, enacting comprehensive immigration reform, raising taxes, or changing entitlement programs -- all of which have sparked fierce ideological battles in the past. We’re talking about the small stuff, actions that either have near-universal support or that cost relative drops in the federal budget. That’s why this gridlock is different.

When you can’t give the opposition even the smallest win

What also is different is the current resistance to give the political opposition ANYTHING that could resemble a win -- no matter how small, no matter how seemingly uncontroversial. In 1996 during a time of divided government, Bill Clinton was able to work with Newt Gingrich to achieve welfare reform. In 2001 after the previous year’s disputed presidential election, Ted Kennedy worked with John Boehner to pass George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education reform. Those bipartisan agreements -- even if they were the exceptions, even if they had their detractors -- helped remind voters that, yes, the system can work; that, yes, politicians can come together from time to time. But those exceptions now seem like the most unrealistic of possibilities. Perhaps thanks to the political reward structure (both in the media and bigger partisan bases) and the feedback loop, anyone who attempts the “win-win” approach in politics gets punished. Because NOW the assumption is: If a political opponent “wins,” then I lose. It’s all become a zero-sum game.

GOP pins the dysfunction on Obama

Republicans blame the dysfunction on President Obama. “The process has been hampered by the contradictory messages being sent by the White House about the president's willingness to solve the problem,” House Speaker John Boehner has said about the humanitarian crisis at the border. He added, “We see a similar situation with the scandal at the VA. Bipartisan, bicameral negotiations were making good progress until the White House began demanding more money with no accountability and no strings attached.” Democrats, of course, say the dysfunction is the GOP’s fault since their negotiating position is “here’s our plan, support it or we walk.”

Obama meets with Central American leaders at the White House

At 2:00 pm ET, President Obama meets with the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to discuss the unaccompanied minors from these Central American countries who are coming into the United States. Per NBC’s Kristen Welker, senior administration officials say the leaders will discuss ways to lessen the pressure people feel in Central America to make this dangerous journey, and they will also discuss ways to promote safe and legal travel. An official adds that the administration has been in consistent contact with the three governments and there has been progress. “We’ve asked for the assistance in dismantling smuggling routes and targeting organized crime groups responsible. We’ve seen good work by all three governments. In the case of Honduras, they’ve arrested 12 significant migrant smugglers.” The meeting comes as the New York Times reports that the White House “is considering whether to allow hundreds of minors and young adults from Honduras into the United States without making the dangerous trek through Mexico, according to a draft of the proposal. If approved, the plan would direct the government to screen thousands of children and youths in Honduras to see if they can enter the United States as refugees or on emergency humanitarian grounds.” The White House says that no decision has been made, NBC News reports.

Who is the real Paul Ryan?

That’s the question the New Republic is asking this morning after praise -- even among some liberals -- about Ryan’s new plan to make poverty programs more efficient but not cut them. Writes Danny Vinik: “In his budget, Ryan cuts food stamps by $137 billion, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. In his antipoverty agenda, he doesn’t cut food stamps at all… You don’t often see a politician unveil two major, contradictory proposals within a few months of each other. But that’s exactly what Ryan did. And it leads to a different question: Who is the real Paul Ryan?” A budget hawk? Or a pragmatic policy reformer who doesn’t want to cut safety-net spending? One thing is for sure: We’ve definitely moved past the politics of austerity.

Dem poll: Majority of women oppose Hobby Lobby decision

A new national poll conducted by Hart Research (D) that was commissioned for Planned Parenthood Action Fund finds that 58% of women ages 18-55 (1,083 were interviewed) oppose the Supreme Court decision allowing owners of for-profit companies to refuse to provide birth control coverage if it violates their religious beliefs. That includes 73% of Democratic women and 60% of independents, and 35% of Republicans. Also, 57% of these total female respondents -- including 55% of independents -- say they would be more likely to support a candidate who opposes the decision. And 72% of these women say the Hobby Lobby decision is something that’s very or fairly important to them personally. “What we see in this survey is that women are paying attention to the Hobby Lobby decision. They disagree with the Hobby Lobby decision -- and more importantly, they disagree with the politicians who support the Hobby Lobby decision,” says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who conducted the survey. Hart Research is the Democratic half of the NBC/WSJ poll.

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