“There’s little time left in the year. And Congress has little to show for all the time that has gone by.” President Bush minced no words this week in blaming Democrats in Congress for the gridlock we see this fall in the nation’s capital. In fact, both parties and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are to blame. With ideologically divided parties sharing power and eyeing the upcoming presidential election, we should not be surprised to see stalemate on Capitol Hill.
Democrats took up their gavels in January vowing to change the course of the war in Iraq and to secure a host of modest domestic priorities, including healthcare, education and energy reforms. They also promised to clean up a “culture of corruption” outside the halls of Congress and to promote procedural fairness within. Public approval of Congress rose with the Democrats’ return to power. But today, roughly three-quarters of the American public disapproves of the way Congress is performing its job. The president does not fare much better. The public is deeply disappointed in his stewardship of the war and the economy, and disapproving of his veto of a children’s health insurance bill.
Democrats do have legislative successes to herald. After 10 months in power, they have enacted ethics and lobbying reform, increased the minimum wage, secured new measures to bolster homeland security and achieved a host of smaller goals. Missing from this list, however, are all the big issues of the day: changing the course of the war in Iraq, overhauling the nation’s immigration laws, reforming and expanding healthcare for the uninsured. Numerous other policy initiatives also show slow progress over the year, including efforts to address the nation’s energy, farming, education and affordable housing needs. Senate confirmation of nominees slated for the federal courts of appeals has also moved sluggishly.
Such gridlock should come as no surprise. As a lame duck president, Bush has little incentive to sign Democratic legislation. And with just 51 Democratic senators, congressional leaders don’t have the 60 votes required to halt a Republican filibuster or override every presidential veto – particularly not as moderates have become an endangered species on Capitol Hill in recent decades. Differences between house and senate Democrats over Iraq policy, the pace of passing federal spending bills and upcoming efforts to reform tax policy are also contributing to Congress’s lackluster record.
Which party will pay the price for gridlock? Although Democrats may castigate the president for unpopular vetoes and blame Republicans for blocking major policy initiatives, the public rarely holds the minority party in Congress responsible for stalemate. More often, congressional majorities are blamed for failing to get anything done. This means that neither Democrats nor Republicans are likely to gain the upper hand as the parties fail to compromise over policy disputes.
To be sure, Democrats have an electoral incentive to avoid being tagged as the “do-nothing” Congress as they head into 2008. A record of accomplishments would help prove to voters that they can be trusted to govern. With the even balance of power between the parties, however, Democrats also have an incentive to deny Republicans bragging rights for policy successes. That is a recipe for more gridlock as we enter a presidential election year. The next president and new Congress will be left the challenge of solving the nation’s most pressing and vexing problems.