TAMPA — Gerrymandering, closed primaries and the role of money in politics are the biggest forces pushing members of Congress to extreme positions and preventing bipartisan problem-solving.
That's the assessment two former members of Congress, one Democratic and one Republican but both moderates, offered at a forum Thursday.
"The amount of time you're expected to fundraise — fundraising is the No. 1 job, 20 to 30 hours a week," said former Rep. David Jolly, R-St. Petersburg, when asked to name his biggest surprise on taking office.
Patrick Murphy, a Democrat from Jupiter, responded with a story about forming a bipartisan group with a Republican fellow freshman to try to work on issues both sides could agree on, including eliminating government waste.
They produced a bill identifying $450 billion in waste, he said. But the effort fell apart when Republican House Speaker John Boehner told Murphy's Republican colleague he wouldn't allow a bill to come up if it included a Democratic co-sponsor.
Murphy said the Republican was told, "We're not going to make Murphy look good — we're trying to defeat him. If you work with him, we're going to drop you from your committee." That would have prevented the Republican colleague from raising money for re-election.
Thursday's forum at the University of South Florida, "Why gridlock rules Washington, and how we can solve the crisis," is one of a series on campuses by the two former representatives.
Jolly won the St. Petersburg House seat in a special election in 2014, but lost it to Democrat Charlie Crist in 2016, after alienating party leaders by publicly decrying the emphasis in Congress on fundraising.
He said when he first arrived in Washington, GOP caucus leaders told him his first responsibility was to raise money, not learn about issues.
Murphy, a former Republican, changed parties in 2011 because he felt the GOP was becoming too extreme. He won his House seat, but then lost to Marco Rubio in the 2016 Senate race.
Murphy said freshmen are subject to "brainwashing" to raise money and make holding or gaining majority control for their party their top priority.
"The single biggest change I would make is gerrymandering," he said. Because 90 percent of congressional districts are basically predetermined as Republican or Democrat, "There's only one election that matters," he said. "You've got to win a primary."
To win a primary, Murphy said, "You've got to go to the far left or the far right."
Jolly said he believes he lost his re-election bid largely because the PACs and party leaders he had alienated abandoned him.
But he said the encouraging message is, "Voters can fix these things."
He cited the Fair Districts Amendment passed by Florida voters in 2010, which lessened gerrymandering, and successful initiatives in other states to institute open primaries. In Florida's closed primaries, only members of the party can vote.
But, Jolly said, "It will take a scandal to change anything on campaign financing."
Contact William March at [email protected]