Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Politics & Government

Why Congress Has No Reason To Give In


Nobody says they like the government shutdown. Everyone says they'd like to reach some kind of deal. So, why is a deal so hard to come by? NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Pleasure to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: It has been reported, I dare say a lot this week, that this core group of Republicans who are so upset over the Affordable Care Act, they're willing to tie it to funding the government, number about 29 or 30. How is that number able to wield so much power?

ELVING: We have seen over the last 20 years the number of true swing districts reduced drastically to almost the vanishing point, just a handful. Whereas the number of districts that have landslides regularly in major elections has increased correspondingly.

So, let's go to Nate Silver, the sabermetrics man of politics, who analyzed the results in 2012 and said that over the last 20 years we had gone up by roughly double in landslide districts to the point where a substantial majority of the districts in the House of Representatives are landslide districts. And that's defined as a place where the Democratic candidate wins by 20 points more in that district than the candidate wins by nationally, and correspondingly the Republican. So, for example, in the 2012 election we had 125 districts in which Mitt Romney got 67 percent of the vote or more, and the congressmen from that district is, guess what, a Republican. And so securely a Republican district that he really has nothing to fear in a November election but a great deal to think about in a primary election where many of these Republicans are finding themselves challenged by another Republican from the right, frequently in recent years someone associated with the Tea Party.

SIMON: How did the districts get this way?

ELVING: Partly it has to do with redistricting and people getting better and better through the use of computers at precisely predicting how a particular neighborhood is going to vote so that they can draw the district lines. And they do it with such precision that they can take half the vote and get two-thirds of the seats out of that vote. And that is happening in a number of states. We've seen it in Michigan and Pennsylvania and North Carolina. And that's through line drawing. But it's also due to some other factors. Some of that is a result of where people live and then, of course, we're seeing this reemphasized by what some sociologists have called the big sort: people choosing to go live in a part of a country where politically they feel more a little bit more at home. Perhaps they move to Texas to be with more conservatives or to the West Coast to be with more Democrats or liberals.

SIMON: What is to prevent the president of the United States or the speaker of the House from saying to a lot of representatives, you know, you've got a nice little district here, I think it could use a bridge or maybe a convention center or a highway?

ELVING: Yes. That used to be called earmarking or just plain log-rolling or any number of other things - pork barreling - so that a leader, whether a president or more often, perhaps, a party leader, would say there's something in this vote for you besides doing the right thing and doing what I want you to do. And then they would bandy about some goodie of one kind or another - a bridge, a road. I don't know if you would call it an honorable practice, but it was a time-honored practice that had been responsible for passing appropriations bills, spending bills of one kind or another, highway bills in particular. And it was an accepted part in the way things were done. It was also roundly criticized by watchdogs and journalists and finally by a lot of candidates for Congress who were running against good old incumbents. And about three years ago, they essentially banned the practice of earmarking. I'm not saying that none of this can ever be done again, but it got a great deal more difficult and certainly more difficult to use it in passing legislation.

SIMON: Is there any obvious path that Speaker Boehner and the president can use to reach a compromise and pass what they call a clean continuing resolution?

ELVING: Yes. The speaker could bring the continuing resolution to the floor of the House at any time. Many observers think that once it really came to the floor, a great number of Republicans would vote for it, particularly those who are in districts where they don't really fear, for one reason or another, having a challenger from the right, as we talked of earlier. So, it would almost surely pass if the speaker brought it to the floor. But if the speaker were to do that, the speaker would incur a rebellion, in all likelihood, in his own ranks, which could lead to a vote on his continuation as speaker. And he likes that job.

SIMON: NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.