The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

February 9, 2014

William Lloyd | Will moderate Republicans gain control?


JOHNSTOWN — It is popular to blame the lack of action in Washington on the failings of President Obama and the congressional leadership and on the fact that one party controls the White House and the Senate and the opposite party controls the House of Representatives. Although there is merit to these critiques, the current gridlock has a more basic cause.

Without question, partisanship has intensified during the past several decades, but there have been previous times in American history when the partisan divide was just as great and when the parties bent, or changed, the rules to advance their own agendas.

Furthermore, having one party in control of the White House and the other party in control of at least one house of Congress is not unique. In fact, the president’s party has controlled both houses of Congress for fewer than nine of the past 34 years.

The natural tendency of most politicians is to try to broaden their base of support. If they win one election by 51 percent to 49 percent, they aim to win the next election more comfortably. Historically, achieving that goal has forced members of Congress from both parties to moderate their positions in order to win at least some support from constituents who were registered in the opposite party.

However, that incentive has been seriously undermined.

First, because the 2010 election was a Republican landslide, the GOP controlled the reapportionment process in significantly more states than the Democrats did when congressional district boundaries were redrawn after the 2010 census. As a result, Republicans were able to reshape enough districts to give their party a significant head start toward winning a majority in the House for 10 years.

This gerrymandering helped the Republicans accomplish something in 2012 that had been done only two previous times since World War II – that is, win the majority of seats in the House even though, on a cumulative basis, their candidates won fewer votes than the candidates of the opposite party.

Second, at one time, a significant number of representatives won in districts carried by the opposite party’s presidential candidate. That is no longer the case. About one-third of House Republicans elected to Congress in the 1994 GOP landslide won in districts carried by President Clinton in 1992. In contrast, in 2012, only 4 percent of House Democrats won in districts carried by Gov. Mitt Romney; similarly, only 7 percent of House Republicans won in districts carried by President Obama.

As a result, most members of the House can now win re-election simply by satisfying enough voters of their own party in a primary; their chances of losing the general election are remote.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that the primary election usually decides who will be a district’s representative in Congress, only about half as many Americans vote in primaries as in general elections.

As a result, primaries tend to be dominated by the voters who are the most enthusiastic about their party’s philosophy and the least willing to compromise. Not surprisingly, therefore, members of Congress have a stronger incentive to hew to their party’s philosophy than to appeal to the more moderate elements of their own party or to moderates in the opposite party.

Because of who normally participates in primary elections, congressional Republicans are, on the whole, more conservative than the majority of voters who support Republican candidates in the general election. For example, a January Fox News poll reported that 60 percent of Republicans support immigration reform with a path to citizenship; however, House Republicans have thus far failed to act.

Similarly, although a January Pew Research Center poll showed that 53 percent of Republicans support raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour from $7.25, congressional Republican leaders have opposed any increase.

In addition, according to a December Pew Research Center poll, 56 percent of Republicans believe that the best way to reduce the federal deficit is through a combination of cuts to major programs and an increase in taxes; however, once again, congressional Republicans have ruled out any tax increase as part of a deficit-reduction agreement.

The conventional wisdom is that the Republicans will retain control of the House in this year’s midterm elections. That does not mean that continued gridlock is inevitable. If they turn out for the primaries and support more moderate candidates, Republican voters who disagree

with their party’s leadership on key issues have the power to elect representatives who will do what the majority of registered Republicans want.

The question is whether they will use that power.


William Lloyd of Somerset represented Somerset County in the state House of Representatives (1981-1998) and served as the state’s Small Business Advocate (November 2003-October 2011). He writes a monthly column for The Tribune-Democrat.