Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) nailed it as the 112th Congress drew to a close: “Something has gone terribly wrong when the biggest threat to our American economy is the American Congress.” The new year’s battle over the fiscal cliff drove home how dysfunctional our nation’s political system has become. To be sure, a deal was reached that averted tax increases for over 99 percent of the nation’s taxpayers — but only under the threat that stalemate would throw the economy back into a recession. And the deal did not address the nation’s long-term debt and deficit problems. Instead, Congress and the president kicked the can down the road into the hands of the 113th Congress.
Why is Congress so prone to gridlock, and what hopes should we have for a turnaround in the new Congress? Numerous Washington observers have charged that the 112th Congress was the most dysfunctional Congress ever. Brinkmanship and last-minute deals prevailed. Lawmakers nearly caused a governmental shutdown and came perilously close to forcing the government to default on its obligations. Along the way, legislators stalemated over long-term solutions on perennial issues of transportation, agriculture, education, climate change and others. Although we lack a metric to know whether this was the worst Congress ever, judging by the public’s reaction, Congress’ performance was abysmal. At times only 10 percent of the public was willing to admit to pollsters that they approved of Congress’s on-the-job performance.
Three forces fuel today’s gridlock. First, divided party control of government raises the bar against major policy change. Parties are the only glue for bridging policy and electoral differences between the ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, meaning that more can be done in periods of unified party control. Just compare President Obama’s first two years in office (with Democrats controlling both branches) with the second two years (after Republicans captured the House). Congress was remarkably productive under unified control, enacting numerous landmark accomplishments, from health care reform to Wall Street reform. Under divided government, only do-or-die deadlines brought the parties to the table. Divided government continues in the 113th Congress, handicapping Congress even before it gets underway.
Second, legislative parties have polarized over the past half-century, even though Americans remain centrist in their policy views. Polarization increases deadlock, because our political system requires large coalitions to adopt major policy change. Such coalitions are harder to build when few legislators occupy the ideological center. Increased polarization reflects the parties’ ideological differences over the proper role of government, plus a strong dose of sheer partisan team play. As a result, much of congressional disagreement is strategic: The parties hold out for a full loaf rather than compromise on a half. Not surprisingly, when deadlines forced parties to the table in the 112th Congress, they often kicked the can down the road. As a result, the 113th Congress starts with a huge plate of leftovers, leaving little room for new issues.
Third, stalemate is fueled by bicameral disagreement. Even when a single party controls both the House and Senate, disagreements arise that reflect electoral and institutional differences between the chambers. Bicameral differences are compounded when the parties split control of the chambers, as Congress’s recent record attests. Bicameral obstacles remain high this year, with a smaller and more conservative Republican House facing off against a larger and more liberal Democratic Senate.
What do these trends portend for the new Congress?
In many ways, the new Congress should look like the old one. Some of the incessant partisan fighting might lessen now that the president no longer faces the challenge of reelection, but elections always loom large for members of the House and a third of the Senate, so pressures from the parties’ activist bases will continue to pull legislators to the extremes. Democrats will resist major changes to government entitlement programs, preferring to resolve the country’s fiscal mess by raising new revenues through the tax code. Republicans will continue to push for spending cuts on discretionary and mandatory programs, rejecting moves to tax the wealthy to reduce the deficit. In other words, prospects for a grand bargain over taxes and spending remain dim.
I also expect that congressional power will remain concentrated in the hands of party leaders, and that rank-and-file legislators will continue to grumble about it. This is a natural outgrowth of polarized parties that legislate on the brink. Because the parties resist compromise until the 11th hour, it’s no wonder that leaders take up the reins of power. Given continued polarization and deadlines in early 2013 to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling, it will likely be déjà vu all over again. Deadlines will force the parties to the table at the last minute, allowing leaders to claim for their partisans that they secured the best and only deal possible under the circumstances.
What role can the president play in generating politically acceptable solutions to vexing public problems? Some say that the president should use his electoral leverage to take his battles to the public, generating pressures on lawmakers to support his solutions on immigration, gun control and so forth. Perhaps going public will make it harder for lawmakers to resist proposals advanced by the president. But as the fiscal cliff episode showed, even a full-court presidential press on the top issue of his campaign — raising taxes on the top 2 percent of the wealthiest taxpayers — faced rough sledding. On many issues the public is nearly equally as divided as the lawmakers they send to Washington. Although voters tell pollsters that they prefer compromise to stalemate, finding acceptable solutions in a period of polarization often proves difficult. The power of the president to short circuit gridlock in today’s political environment is limited.
Legislative stalemate creates few winners and comes at high cost. By delaying action on the nation’s long-term fiscal needs and policy priorities, Congress undermines public confidence and threatens the nation’s economic health and public welfare now and into the future.