The Roots of Congressional Discord

In her new book, For the Next Generation, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz discusses how the U.S. Congress came to be so gridlocked, and urges her colleagues to focus on finding common ground rather than scoring political points. The recent federal government shutdown and brinksmanship over the debt ceiling is only the latest example of the extreme politics that have increasingly plagued Congress, and Rep. Wasserman Schultz sounds an alarm about the toll that inaction will take on the next generation. With a temporary deal on the budget and debt ceiling now in place, Members of Congress have an immediate opportunity -- and a responsibility to future generations of Americans -- to put leadership ahead of politics and get back to the business of governing.


It seems long ago, but for most of 2009 and 2010, the Tea Party was all the rage, literally. In 2010 mid-term elections, a cast of ultra-conservative Republicans won election, powering the GOP takeover of the House. Republican Minority Leader, Ohio congressman John Boehner, was elected Speaker, but he was forced to deal with a combative, intransigent pack of Tea Party freshman legislators. Nearly all of them had signed the "Taxpayer Protection Pledge," a document circulated by the fiscally conservative political operative Grover Norquist in which the signer forsakes one of the most sacrosanct responsibilities of his office: their independence to use their judgment to make the best decision to ensure the welfare of the American people. How on earth can you hope to negotiate with a colleague who has already committed, by signature, to an absolute position?

The congressional term that followed was one of the most acrimonious in recent history, marked by a debt ceiling showdown that brought the U.S. government to the brink of shutting down.

In May 2011, Speaker Boehner announced that House Republicans would not agree to the President's request to lift the debt ceiling. As I explain in Chapter 1 of my new book, this was a measure that was necessary for the government to pay our bills and meet our legal obligations for paying out benefits in programs like Social Security and Medicare, as well as tax refunds and military salaries. In all the years that Congress has debated the merits of spending, lifting the debt ceiling was a mere formality; never before had a party resorted to such an extreme tactic.

In essence, the GOP had decided to hold the nation's economy hostage to extract spending cuts from Democrats, a course we objected to because those cuts were certain to shatter an economic recovery that was still fragile. The simplest way to explain the Republicans' refusal to raise the debt ceiling is to compare it to your family's credit card. Imagine if you had a large credit card balance and when you saw that balance you were so outraged, you simply decided not to pay it. Clearly, that's not an option.

This brinksmanship unleashed a fresh round of tirades on the House floor and on cable news shows. Over the course of that summer, consumer confidence tumbled, sending ripples through the economy. The impasse was resolved in August in a deal that raised the debt ceiling and made a down payment on reducing the deficit with budget cuts of $1.2 trillion and no additional revenue. A provision of the deal called for the creation of a bipartisan committee that came to be known as the Super Committee. It earned that moniker because it was bipartisan and bicameral and the result of their deliberations, unlike the normal legislative process, would go directly to the House and Senate floors and not be able to be amended. Members of Congress would then take an "up or down" vote on their work product. The Super Committee was tasked with identifying at least $1.5 trillion in future spending cuts or else face a forced "sequestration" -- huge, automatic cuts to a host of domestic programs like education and health-care research and massive cuts in defense spending. The theory behind the bipartisan deal was that both sides would have enough "skin in the game" to avoid the fiscal cliff it would cause without an agreement. To almost no one in Washington's surprise, the Super Committee failed to reach agreement.

The day before the vote on the deal, I got a call from Gabby Giffords's husband, Mark. He told me that Gabby had been following the debate while continuing her rehabilitation, as part of her recovery from the shooting in Tucson several months before. She was considering flying back to the capital to make sure the debt ceiling legislation didn't fail by one vote because she wasn't there. She knew what was at stake for the country and for her constituents in particular. Gabby wanted to make sure she was there to cast her vote on their behalf. Mark asked me whether I thought her vote could make a difference and I told him it was definitely a possibility. They made plans to fly back.

Our staff arranged for me to meet Gabby, Mark, and her Chief of Staff, Pia Carusone, in the carriage entrance of the House side of the Capitol so that Pia and I could walk Gabby into the House Chamber to cast her vote. We went up to the second floor in the elevator and slowly walked toward the chamber, with me holding Gabby's elbow and Pia right behind. As we approached the entrance and climbed the few steps into the chamber, members gradually recognized Gabby, realizing that she'd returned to cast her vote. The symbolism of that moment hit each House member and the entire chamber erupted in a thunderous ovation. Republicans and Democrats alike shed tears of joy and gratitude.

At the same time, each of us had a solemn responsibility to safeguard our nation, both from those who would do us harm and from financial ruin. A group of members were crowding around Gabby, offering to take her voting card from her to help her cast her vote. But since she still had more progress to make in her recovery, I realized that this might be the last vote Gabby cast in Congress. I knew she wanted to do it herself, so I cleared the way for her to be able to insert her voting card in the slot where members record their vote. The debt ceiling legislation passed, 269-161. The vote was expected to be closer, but I am certain that Gabby's presence changed some hearts and minds that day. It was, for me, one of the most emotionally powerful scenes I have witnessed on the floor of Congress.

Unfortunately, thanks to the conflict and uncertainty that led to that deal--and for the game of chicken that preceded it -- the United States had its credit rating downgraded for the first time in history. In a news release, Standard & Poor's stated, "The downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges."

Among the major factors cited by credit rating agencies was the unlikelihood that Republicans would agree to let the Bush tax cuts expire in 2012, combined with Republicans' unwillingness to identify new sources of revenue, such as increasing taxes on the wealthy. It was the most vivid illustration yet of the consequences of two parties being unable to work together. Sadly, there would be more of these instances to come, many of them vitriolic.

Excerpted from For The Next Generation, by Debbie Wasserman Schultz