Today, the new 113th Congress officially enters Capitol Hill. Their swearing-in represents a fresh start and the hope that maybe, just maybe, the ideological excesses and obstructionism of the Tea Party class of 2012 are over.
Ironically, the first major act of the new Congress will be to deal with some of the priorities the Tea Party established for itself—dealing with the deficit and debt through a combination of entitlement reforms, spending cuts, and tax reform—which is expected to come due with the debt ceiling and sequester cuts in two months. The Congress’s challenge will be to deal with this opportunity more constructively and cooperatively than its Tea Party predecessors.
There is some rational reason for optimism rooted in the key differences between the 2010 and 2012 elections.
The Class of 2010 was elected by a narrow but intense slice of the electorate—the anti-Obama, recession-fueled rage of the 2010 midterm election landslide.
The Class of 2012 was elected in a presidential year, with a broader and more representative segment of the electorate. The message this freshman class heard from voters was all about finding a way to work together in Washington—stop fighting and start fixing. And, at least so far, that demand seems to be reflected in the attitudes of this freshman class.
For example, many of the 2013 freshmen attended an orientation session at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government after the election. The director of the Institute of Politics, Trey Grayson told me the staff noticed a distinct difference between these new congressmen and previous classes.
“The common attitude among those who attended our conference was that they wanted to be solution-oriented,” said Grayson. “They heard loud and clear from voters during the campaign that voters wanted solutions, not rhetoric.”
It was a perception also picked up on by Mark McKinnon—the center-right GOP strategist and fellow Daily Beast columnist and co-founder of No Labels, who teaches at the IOP. “This freshman class made an impression because they were: A) largely from entrepreneurial backgrounds and B) campaigned in an environment that was all about problem-solving rather than hyper-partisanship and finger-pointing.”
“We’ve got multiple entrepreneurs and folks from the private sector who are used to dealing with bottom line,” concurred the Republican freshman class president Luke Messer of Indiana. “We’ve got 16 or so military veterans and a lot of folks from local and state government, where you have to work together to get things done. These people didn’t come here to just bicker and fight and kick out a press release blaming someone else. They’re here to get results.”
That’s the good news. It’s not that their policy or philosophical differences are any less deeply held—Rep. Messer is a conservative committed to the idea that “we have to change our pattern as a nation of spending money we don’t have”—but their approach and tone is likely to be very different from the radioactive “us-against-them” rhetoric we heard from departing Tea Party stars like Allen West, who infamously accused the Democratic ranks of harboring communists.
In contrast, one of Messer’s goals is to establish regular social get-togethers between Republican and Democratic freshmen. “It’s much harder to demonize people that you know,” he says sensibly.
There is an additional reason for hope rooted in the demographics of the 113th Congress. This is the most diverse and representative congressional class in our nation’s history. It’s not just the Senate presence of the first openly gay senator Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin—or the historic presence of Tim Scott as the first African-American Republican senator from the South since Reconstruction. There are more women in Congress now than ever before, and more ethnic and racial diversity as well. Simply put, this Congress comes closer to looking like America—and that is a good thing in terms of bridging all our interesting differences to find a way to work together based on our shared civic faith as Americans first.
Confronting the legacy of the Do-Nothing 112th Congress as the least effective since the 1940s is also a corrective. Hopefully, these freshmen will have learned from their predecessors’ experience that insisting on all or nothing usually results in nothing. They have the expectations of the 2012 electorate pushing them to form broader cross-aisle coalitions, even if the party whips push otherwise.
Of course, the culture of Congress is not going to change overnight. There are one-third the number of swing districts today than there were 20 years ago—a problem compounded by the rigged system of redistricting and the poisonous effects of partisan media. But this Congress has a very different mandate than the class elected in 2010—and a comparatively Democratic tilt despite the persistence of divided government.
Hopefully, this will be the Congress than passes comprehensive immigration reform—as President Bush tried in 2007. We know that gun laws are likely to be on the agenda courtesy of a bill that will be submitted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein on the first day of the new Congress. And then there is the pressing issue of finally getting some sort of grand bargain passed, which will require the president pushing some entitlement reforms against the wishes of his base as well as closing some tax loopholes than raise revenue along with spending cuts that include defense, policies that many conservatives will resist despite the rhetoric of dealing with the deficit and debt. None of it will be easy, but very little that’s worthwhile in this world is easy.
So, on this first day of a new Congress, we can at least hope that things will be different—a hope backed up by the knowledge that voters really did send a very different message in 2012 than they did in 2010.
“In the real world, adults have to work together,” reasons Rep. Messer. “So I’ll talk to anybody who is willing to work to move America forward. After all, our nation has overcome far bigger divides than we have today.”