Is This Really the Worst Congress Ever?

The following is Sarah Binder’s reponse to a Foreign Policy debate on whether the current Congress is really the worst ever.

Yes, it’s really that bad. 

Worst. Congress. Ever? Best. Title. Ever. Unsurprisingly, Norman Ornstein nails the country’s current predicament as succinctly as anyone in or outside Washington can. True, we lack a metric to know exactly whether today’s political dysfunction is the worst ever. But with the country’s rating agencies on the verge of downgrading the nation’s creditworthiness and the Treasury Department just days from breaching the nation’s legal debt ceiling, my Spidey-sense is tingling something’s terribly amiss in Washington.

Ornstein has fingered probably the most important culprit driving today’s dysfunction: the steadily growing polarization of the two legislative parties in Washington. Such polarization — which has been under way at least since the early 1980s — reflects two trends: pronounced policy differences (typically on ideological grounds) and intense partisan disagreement. The political parties in Washington disagree so intensely because they hold different views about the appropriate role of government in managing the economy and because electoral competition gives each party a strategic incentive to disagree with the other party — simply because it is the other party.

Ornstein’s focus on polarization helps shed light on two underappreciated elements of congressional politics.

First, political scientists and pundits often argue that divided party control is essential for getting things done in Washington. In some respects, the argument makes sense. Facing tough choices, both parties use the cover of bipartisanship to reach agreements that are unattainable under unified party control. As David Mayhew has shown us, we certainly have episodes of landmark lawmaking in periods of divided government, for instance tax reform in 1986 and welfare reform a decade later. But the effectiveness of divided government in propelling solutions might be conditional on the state of the parties. Split control when polarization is low yields sustainable policy bargains; split control when polarization is high can put policy agreement out of reach.

That certainly seems to be the case when we look at machinations on Capitol Hill these past few weeks in the run-up to the debt ceiling deadline. Even in the face of a potential downgrade of U.S. creditworthiness, the parties struggle to compromise.

Second, many analysts focus on the stalemate induced by interbranch conflict between Congress and the executive. But studies of legislative performance over the past half-century also suggest that the conflict engendered by intrabranch disagreement also raises the chances for deadlock. We often overlook the impact of bicameral differences on the prospects for solving major public problems. This is true when the parties split control of the chambers, as has been evident in this Congress. But bicameralism also poses a hurdle to legislating when a single party controls both chambers. Just think about the tortuous path of the health-care bill in the last Congress as House and Senate Democrats pursued different approaches to reform.

In sum, Congress’s lawmaking capacity is severely strained under the weight of polarized parties. Still, it is important to keep in mind how the institutional framework of the U.S. political system — including checks and balances within Congress — makes legislating difficult. And as Ornstein as warned, parliamentary parties in a system of separated powers often prove a recipe for gridlock.