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Posted at 5 a.m. on July 7, 2014
Roll Call’s fearless Editor-in-Chief Christina Bellantoni recently recapped the 53rd Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game and described some of the bipartisan friendships that started to form on the field.
At the end of the post, she pointed to a common reason given to explain the increased polarization in the nation’s capital:
“[W]hen you ask any of the congressional observers or longtime lawmakers what’s changed, the answer is always the same — no one spends any time together anymore. Families don’t move to Washington. Members blow out of town like the last day of school each Thursday afternoon, racing to the airports only to return late Monday.”
That characterization is correct, of course, but it’s also important to understand why members don’t spend more time in Washington: Hanging around D.C. is likely to increase their electoral vulnerability, either in a primary or a general election.
“The truth is that we can never go back to those good ol’ days; there’s just too much coverage now of what we do and access to how we do it,” one Democratic congressman told me in an email during the holiday recess.
In the past, continued the congressman, “constituents received their news and information from the limited news hour on a TV with limited news channels and in a newspaper.”
Now, the saturating media coverage of political figures and political campaigns has put a microscope on everything a member of Congress does, and ideological websites and partisan cable networks are just itching to criticize members for “going Washington.”
“With the advent of the internet, social media, and cable TV, the number of eyes on Congress have increased. So, if you’re not in your district there’s a much greater chance your constituents will find out about that in some sort of ‘where is our rep’ news piece,” the Democrat explained. “This puts you in an ‘out of sight, out of mind problem’ and leaves you vulnerable to a challenger who will be at home ‘in touch with his constituents.’”
At least one of his Republican colleagues agrees, telling me it would be a problem.
“The more time members stay away from their districts, the worse it is for them politically,” argued the Republican congressman. “Few constituents expect to agree with their member on all or even most things, but they do get upset if the member does not listen or seems not to be listening to them.”
Years ago, few potential primary challengers had the access to money, television time (on the cable networks) and “outside groups” that they needed to knock off incumbents. That has changed, making it more important for incumbents to keep a high profile in their districts and return home often.
Spending more time in D.C. socializing with political adversaries might help build relationships across party lines, but it isn’t clear that constituents really want their members to have bipartisan friendships or compromise on high-profile legislative matters.
If you are a conservative Republican or liberal Democrat and are caught fraternizing with the opposite party, you can be sure that the most ideological elements of your party will criticize you for being a “Republican In Name Only” or an insufficiently progressive Democrat. And when that happens, a primary is likely to follow.
“The ‘partisan divisions’ so frequently cited in Washington reflect the fact that the country is divided politically,” the Republican congressman said. “Members by and large represent the views of their districts; when they cease doing this they can get turned out of office.”
“You will likely pay a penalty for wanting to work with Republicans in your own party,” the Democratic congressman observed. “My most recent challenge centered almost entirely on ‘He’s not a real Democrat.’ I was still fine, but I think I had cover from the ‘He’s not a real Democrat’ attack because I went home. Had I worked with GOP as I did and not gone home, I’d be one of your rare primary losses.”
“If someone represents an Obama +30 district, there are simply limits to how much that member can do on hot button issues with a member in a Romney +20 district,” the Republican congressman explained. “I don’t think going out to dinner with a bunch of bipartisan couples would really alter that basic reality.”