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Congress is doing exactly what it was elected to do

By Sean Theriault, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sean Theriault: Moderates were routed in last fall's elections
  • The tea party caucus members were elected to block compromise, he says
  • Republicans who reached across the aisle got defeated, he says
  • Theriault: "Never compromise" officials are holding us hostage

Editor's note: Sean Theriault is an associate professor of government at The University of Texas at Austin and author, most recently, of "Party Polarization in Congress".

Austin, Texas (CNN) -- In 2005, I published a book called "The Power of the People." In it, I made the simple argument that, contrary to the opinion of a growing number of political pundits, members of Congress are still -- as they have always been -- responsive to their constituents.

So, you might ask, why is it that according to Gallup, two-thirds of Americans want our politicians to compromise on the American debt crisis and yet the grand bargain between President Obama and Speaker Boehner seems so elusive? In short, our members of Congress are acting exactly as they were elected to.

In Utah, a three-term senator, Bob Bennett, who was more conservative than the average Republican, lost his renomination effort. Why? Because he had the audacity to introduce a health care reform plan, very much based on his free market orientation, with a Democrat.

In South Carolina, Rep. Bob Inglis, a conservative Republican and 12-year incumbent, also lost in the primary. Why? Because he thought it was more important to vote in favor of a bailout package, endorsed by the leaders of his party and a president from his party, than to cast a principled -- and silly, I might add -- vote that would have sent the global economy into meltdown.

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These scenarios played out time and again in Republican primaries in 2010. When all was said and done, 129 tea party candidates for the House, all marching to the mantra to never compromise, were on the ballot in the general election in November.

The general election brought us race after race in which these tea party candidates were running against moderate Democrats, the so-called "Blue Dogs." Some of these Blue Dogs fought against Obama's health care plan. Others fought against cap-and-trade environmental legislation. In fighting these plans, the Blue Dogs frequently made them more moderate.

It didn't matter how hard they fought these plans or that they voted against them because, in November, their constituents voted them out of office. Why? Simply for being Democrats. And because of those decisions in November, the Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives now has 60 members -- 60 automatic votes against any type of compromise to preserve the full faith and credit of the United States.

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The problem with our deficit crisis today is that the message the voters sent -- and that the winning candidates heard -- was "never compromise, never surrender." We may need such a mentality on the battlefield, but we cannot have such a mentality in politics. Politics, after all, is the art of compromise.

Our Constitution was a document forged in compromise: compromise among 13 states, each with different preferences and different backgrounds. They forged compromise because they knew the problems they faced were greater than the differences between them.

Regrettably, pragmatic problem solving was not the choice voters made in the Republican primaries or the general election in 2010. And, now, we are all living with it. Elections, indeed, have consequences and we are now bearing the consequences of the decisions made by the electorate in district after district and state after state nine months ago.

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It appears as though the mantra of "no compromise, no surrender" has less appeal for Americans today than it did in November. Or, perhaps it was the one-third of Americans today who oppose any compromise to keep the United States solvent who voted in November, while too many of the other two-thirds stayed home because they didn't think their vote mattered.

Regardless of why "no compromise, no surrender" was more popular nine months ago than it is today, you cannot blame this Washington mess on the members of Congress. They are doing exactly what they were elected to do. I suspect that if Sen. Bennett and Rep. Inglis were around, they would be sitting at the table forging compromise.

Regrettably, they lost to "never compromise and never back down" candidates, who, along with their ilk, are now holding the rest of us hostage.

Hopefully, we will learn from our mistakes.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sean Theriault.

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