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The Price of Power: Congressional Leadership Positions for Sale to the Highest Bidder

Uniquely among legislatures in the developed world, our Congressional parties now post prices for key slots on committees. You want it — you buy it.

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As though by an invisible hand, Congressional campaigns thus insensibly acquire a more national flavor. They endlessly repeat a handful of slogans that have been battle tested for their appeal to the national investor blocs and interest groups that the leadership relies on for resources. And crossing party lines becomes dangerous indeed, as the recent vote to raise the debt ceiling vividly illustrated. More than half the Tea Party Caucus voted with Speaker Boehner, despite heavy pressure from well-financed ultra-right groups such as the Club for Growth, and the Tea Party's strident opposition to raising the debt ceiling.

This concentration of power also allows party leaders to shift tactics to serve their own ends. They grandstand by trying to hold up legislation. They push hot-button legislative issues that have no chance of passage, just to win plaudits and money from donor blocs and special-interest supporters. When they are in the minority, they obstruct legislation, playing to the gallery and hoping to make an impression in the media. Aware that most Americans pay little attention, both parties flood the airwaves with more of the same old same old, hoping that some of it will stick.

The parties' efforts to emulate Best Buy, in short, create true Legislative Leviathans. They turn Congress into a jungle where individual members compete frantically for donations. The system also produces top-heavy, cash-rich leadership structures within each party. It ensures that national party campaigns rest heavily on slogan-filled, fabulously expensive lowest-common-denominator appeals to collections of affluent special interests. The Congress of our New Gilded Age is far from the best Congress money can buy; it may well be the worst. It is a coin-operated stalemate machine that is now so dysfunctional that it threatens the good name of representative democracy itself. 

But democratic legitimacy is far from the only value at risk as the 2012 election approaches. Over the long run, the bonfire of inanities fueled by gridlock has encouraged more and more investors and interest groups on the right to keep raising the stakes. Groups like the Club for Growth, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute have become ever bolder in challenging Republicans whose conservative credentials they deem suspect. Establishment Republican leaders in Congress, even with all their advantages, have a harder and harder time containing these groups. The leadership only just prevailed in the battle over the debt ceiling this summer. In a globalized world that is increasingly nervous, however irrationally, about budget deficits and sovereign debt repayments, it would be a mistake to underestimate how much havoc a small group of zealots could wreak in the next few months, as taxes and the budget promise to redefine American politics.

Thomas Ferguson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

 
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