The most interesting public opinion factoid to keep in mind as we pivot through the lame-duck session and prepare for the 112th Congress ahead is the following: By wide margins, Americans want our elected officials to work together, to compromise to solve the huge problems facing the country at home and abroad. But the numbers are not uniform across groups.
Democrats and independents want cooperation and compromise by a roughly 2-to-1 ratio, but self-identified Republicans want their politicians, by nearly as wide margins, to stick to principle and not indulge in dilution through compromise.
This poses a challenge to Republican leaders. They know pragmatically that two years of bickering and gridlock are not likely to work to their advantage with those independent voters who put them over the top in the House and within striking distance in the Senate. It also poses a challenge to the new Members, who came to Washington, D.C., to change the culture but also to change the outcomes.
Where can we find coalitions that can actually work and pass muster with the primary voters who will judge the new members? Is there any way to bridge the yawning chasm between the liberals who make up the lion’s share of the Democratic base in the House and the tea party acolytes who make up a sizable percentage of the freshman class?
In an ideal world, the big issues — getting the economy in shape and ameliorating the deficit and debt problem — would be fertile ground. One can imagine a grand bargain on a new stimulus, with an infrastructure bank, a green bank and a payroll tax holiday as the foundation. Or a deficit reduction plan based on restraint on all parts of the budget, and more revenues via genuine and bold tax reform. But the reactions of both sides to the deficit commission and the report of the Bipartisan Policy Center do not suggest optimism.
There is, however, one seemingly unlikely area where optimism might be warranted: reform.
The thought struck me last week when I saw that a variety of tea party groups had mobilized to support the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, which has been under sustained assault by the hierarchies in both parties since its inception. The House adopted the OCE by the barest of margins, with the support of less than a handful of Republicans and with plenty of Democratic opposition as well. Over the past two years, it has operated as intended, independently but prudently investigating allegations of ethical transgressions by Members and staff, with every move it has made supported unanimously by the bipartisan members of the OCE, who have widely disparate points of view and ideologies, and with a refreshing transparency to all its actions.