Congress can be lonely for a centrist

October 13, 2017 Greg Giroux

This analysis was first available to Bloomberg Government subscribers

In Congress, the center hasn’t held.

Party-line voting is the norm. Conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans are all but extinct, and there aren’t many lawmakers left in the middle.

One of the centrist casualties, ex-Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), is out with a new book about how he and other middle-of-the-road members of Congress — and their like-minded voters — have become marginalized by the political system.

Altmire from time to time broke with more liberal Democrats, and was elected to three terms in a conservative-leaning district near Pittsburgh. He was unseated in 2012, after Republicans redrew the district lines.

In his view, partisan gerrymandering is one of many factors contributing to the collapse of compromised-minded centrism in Congress. Also contributing: activist groups and super political action committees that demand ideological purity and back it up with threats to financially support primary challengers.

“The lack of an activist political center moves Congress further to the extremes and makes members reluctant to do anything that might irritate their base voters back home,” Altmire wrote in “Dead Center: How Political Polarization Divided America and What We Can Do About It.”

“Moderation is discouraged and compromise is punished,” wrote Altmire, who courted retribution by voting against the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which was unpopular in his district.

“You are pressured by party leaders to take votes you know are not representative of the district you were elected to serve,” he wrote.

A moderate Republican who’s getting ready to retire agreed that most lawmakers have little incentive to reach across the aisle.

“There’s not a political reward for most members to seek consensus,” Rep. Charlie Dent(R-Pa.) said at a panel discussion sponsored by the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress and The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. With most House members representing politically one-sided districts, “it’s safer to play to the base,” Dent said.

Former Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.) said that when he faced opposition in the 2006 and 2008 primaries “it pushed me to the left, and I was much less likely to compromise, much less likely to try to buck the interest groups.”

No, Not With Him

Altmire said Democratic leaders tried to talk him out of holding bipartisan town-hall meetings with Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican from an adjacent district, because they were trying to unseat him.

Wynn, who lost to Donna Edwards in the 2008 primary, recalled criticism from liberal groups after he voted for a Republican energy bill backed by oil companies. Though the measure authorized billions for low-income energy assistance — an add-on that Wynn secured — “that did not serve me well in the primary environment,” Wynn said at the panel discussion.

Altmire, Dent and ex-Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) said political activists on the left and right can reflexively disregard evidence challenging their positions, no matter how compelling. “People have a hard time agreeing on the facts anymore,” Dent said.

Partisan information sources reinforce preconceived opinions, said Lincoln, who lost her seat in the 2010 general election after surviving a runoff against a more liberal primary challenger. “People go to those sources and it just reinvigorates whatever they’re angry about,” she said.

If Altmire could make changes, they would include opening up primaries to independents and put the redrawing of congressional district lines in the control of independent commissions. Six states, including California and Arizona, give commissions primary authority to redraw congressional lines, and Iowa uses a nonpartisan state legislative agency.

While in Congress, he co-sponsored redistricting commission legislation that didn’t advance.

And Then There’s Collins

As frustrating as the workday can be for a congressional moderate, one of the Senate’s leading centrists has decided to stay put rather than seek another office.

In declining a run for governor in 2018, Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she wanted to continue to pursue bipartisan policy solutions on health care and other issues.

“I have demonstrated the ability to work across the aisle to build coalitions and to listen to the concerns of the people of my state, my country, and my colleagues,” said Collins, who’s clear-eyed about the down side of remaining one voice in 100 rather than a state’s chief executive.

“The Senate reflects the discord and the division that characterizes our nation today,” she told a business group in Rockport, Maine, where she announced her decision.

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