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A worried Congress won't take risks

By Ed Rollins, CNN Senior Political Contributor
  • There's little chance an embattled Congress will agree to bold steps, Ed Rollins says
  • Members are concerned about defending their seats in the fall and won't take risks, he says
  • Divisiveness in Congress goes back to George Washington's time, Rollins says

Editor's note: Ed Rollins, a senior political contributor for CNN, is senior presidential fellow at the Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University. He was White House political director for President Reagan and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

New York (CNN) -- In the week we celebrate Valentine's Day, honor our first president, George Washington (and all the other past presidents) and begin the season of Lent, there is much to reflect on.

Valentine's Day is a day of telling loved ones how much they mean to us. Presidents Day is supposed to be a day we remember the great man who led our country through its early days.

For many of us who believe in the Christian faith, Lent is a season of repentance and, hopefully, reflection in preparation for Easter.

For members of Congress, it is the 10-day holiday listed on their official schedule as the President's Day District Work Period. This is supposed to be the period of time that members of Congress go home and meet their constituents. I hope many of them do because they will find their constituents don't like them very much.

The constituents certainly won't have any Happy Valentine's Day cards for them this year. Maybe a season of repentance and reflection would help some of these members better serve their voters' needs. Giving up some of the congressional perks would be a good start.

Often polls have found that voters haven't liked the institution of Congress, while liking their own representatives in Congress. But what many members are finding out this cycle is that their voters still don't like Congress -- and they really don't like them either.

Nearly one in three voters doesn't want their incumbent re-elected, according to the latest Pew Poll. The last time poll numbers were this bad was before the 1994 and 2006 midterms -- and the party in power lost its majority. (Democrats in '94 and Republicans in '06).

Both parties in Congress get fewer than a majority of voters approving their job performance in nearly every major poll and neither side has a majority of voters saying they want them re-elected.

That makes for a lot of nervous senators and members of the House. Right now the Cook Report, a nonpartisan analysis of races done by the respected veteran Charlie Cook, who is the best handicapper in the business, has 60 House races in very competitive contests, meaning either side can win.

Of that number, 50 are Democratic seats and 10 are Republican. In the Senate, with the announced retirement of Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, 10 Democratic seats are in potential jeopardy of switching, including the most vulnerable of all, that of Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

There are 258 days from Wednesday until Election Day, a lifetime in the game of politics. Much might change in that period. But what won't change is a leery and cynical public. In their mind-set each day, the chaos gets worse and the people's work is not getting done. I find it incredible that the House and Senate leadership would go home when a jobs bill is unfinished and more Americans are out of work every day.

Each side will try to blame the other, but in the end not much will get done. When you have as many members in trouble as this year, controversial legislation goes nowhere. Worried members of Congress are often distracted by their opponents' campaigns. They start thinking of every tough vote they must cast as a potential campaign commercial to be used against them.

Even though with blogs, cable television, tweets and whatever else, partisanship today may seem greater, such behavior has been with us since the first Congress. There were no political parties but representatives and senators banded together on the side of President Washington's administration -- or against it.

In our beloved first president's days, he found Congress divided. The first House, elected by the people, had 37 House members voting with the administration and 28 voting against the administration. That broke out to about 57 percent to 43 percent pro-administration. Not a whole lot different from today.

The Senate, elected by state legislatures, was 2 to 1 in support. By the sixth year of Washington's presidency, the anti-administration members had a three vote majority in the House. It was 54-51 in the 3rd Congress after the first census altered membership. The Senate remained pro-administration. So from the earliest days we've had a contentious Congress.

After that, parties were formed and partisanship became permanent. The biggest difference is that most of the early members of Congress didn't run for re-election. They went back home and let someone else serve! Not a bad idea.

Of course, Washington wasn't happy with the strife during his presidency. This is part of what he said about the "spirit of party" in his farewell address: "It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another; foments occasional riot and insurrection."

Happy birthday, Mr. President.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ed Rollins.