We Have Gridlock

In politics, gridlock or deadlock or political stalemate refers to a situation when there is difficulty passing laws that satisfy the needs of the people. A government is gridlocked when the ratio between bills passed and the agenda of the legislature decreases. Laws may be considered as the supply and the legislative agenda as demand. Gridlock can occur when two legislative houses, or the executive branch and the legislature are controlled by different political parties, or otherwise cannot agree.

With that thought in mind, if the fix for gridlock in Congressional matters was simple, we would not have seen it during the first two years of the Trump presidency: Republicans controlled the House of Representatives, the Senate, AND the White House. Using the above definition of “gridlock” means there certainly should have been none in those years. Yet, in comparison to previous Congresses, very little was sent to the President’s desk regarding passed legislation for his signature.

The same held true in Obama’s first two years in office — 2009 and 2010. Though Democrats controlled the House and Senate with him in the White House, several meaningful and certainly critical pieces of legislation could not clear both houses of Congress.

And it’s not getting better! Today, the U.S. Senate considered two versions of legislation that would have funded the government and reopened it after 34 days of 800,000 workers being off. But, as usual, both bills failed to pass: one was proposed by Democrats, one by Republicans. What is at fault for the government remaining closed? 


“If I sponsor a bill declaring apple pie American, it might fall victim to partisan politics,” declared Barack Obama when he struggled with a Republican controlled Congress. His statement came in a speech on the border crisis, (yes, there was a border crisis then and still is!) but could have been made about any number of issues. From the federal shutdown to gun control, stalemate is America’s political norm. Congress is more interested in playing politics than solving problems. Even discussions about congressional gridlock have come to resemble the gridlock itself: tired. Language, like politics, goes NOWHERE.

In a study for the Brookings Institution, a research project sought to place the discussion on firmer “factual” ground. The study examined America’s history of legislative logjams in order to put in context the modern congressional stalemate. Part of the challenge involves measuring legislative success: what’s the baseline against which to compare finished legislation? At what point does a system designed to encourage healthy checks and balances become hopelessly deadlocked?

To get a look at legislative gridlock minus the emotions that swarm around it, let’s look at the system from a historical perspective so we can fairly compare.

Let’s look at the productivity of Congress from 1947 to 2012 by looking at the ratio of failed measures to all major issues on Washington’s agenda. (For an issue to be “major,” it needed to inspire at least four New York Times editorials in a given Congress. I know: you can’t believe I’d use that as a source for comparison!) By this comparison, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Congress holds up as the most productive post-war session—just 27% of major legislative issues remained unresolved. By contrast, three-quarters of the major issues on Obama’s 2012 legislative agenda went nowhere. Even during the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority in 2009-2010, proposals to address big issues, such as education, campaign finance, climate change, immigration and gun control, stalled in legislative limbo.

That same study found that the Obama stalemate fits a well-established pattern: when elections yield more polarised parties and chambers—as they did during Bill Clinton’s second turn and Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive era and the current D.C. mix—bargaining becomes strained and compromise is out of reach.

The data confirms that gridlock has gotten worse and worse over the past half-century. Between 1947 and 2000, for instance, conference agreements averaged about 100 per congress. Between 2001 and 2012, however, the number was just over 20. This number plummeted even further during the 112th Congress, from 2011 to 2013, when only seven final agreements were reached via conference committee.

During the Trump presidency, even with a Republican controlled House and Senate, legislation virtually squeaked to a crawl regarding major issues. It is obvious that politicians can’t quite even agree on what constitutes a “major” issue — like illegal immigration which is burning up Congressional debate and in the American public.

Remember this? When Clinton pushed for health care reform in 1993-1994, the GOP insisted there was no health-care crisis. Today, the parties disagree about whether budget deficits are problematic, whether the minimum wage needs to be raised, and whether campaign-finance reform is needed. At times they even argue about basic facts! Both parties have specific talking points and ideas, and Hell will freeze over before either bends through compromise!

What Has Changed Since the 1960s?

Findings in the study point to the nature of electoral change. Before President Johnson passed civil-rights legislation in 1964, the South was Democratic and the parties were politically diverse. There were liberal and conservative Republicans and liberal and conservative Democrats. It was easier for legislators to find common ground because there wasn’t the same ideological gulf. But the passage of the Civil Rights Act changed partisan politics in the South: the Republican Party gained a foothold and lost many moderates. Liberal Republicans are pretty much GONE, and centrists are becoming an endangered breed. Liberals are now aligned with the Democrats and conservatives are with Republicans—and never the two shall meet!

Americans have grown accustomed to this “us” versus “them” mentality. And there is no indication that current levels of partisanship will diminish soon. In fact, the Brookings study shows that the policy distance between the parties has returned to differences  not seen since the end of the 19th century.

Because control of the House and Senate now swings back and forth, parties see no need to compromise. Politicians know they can simply wait till their party is back in charge, and seem to stop lawmaking just waiting for the change of the guard. Example: After losing the White House in 2008, the Republican party shifted towards the right. This political divide gets worse each time a party finds itself in minority status; it’s easy to oppose everything when you’re not in charge of governing. They don’t think the public will hold them accountable—so they can get away with being unco-operative.

Can such a system correct itself? It might help if negotiations were taken out of the public eye. Legislators in the spotlight feel pressure to stay true to their base, but behind closed doors they might have an easier time coming up with solutions. Take immigration reform. Republicans want border security; Democrats want a path to citizenship. A deal could put each party’s demands together, but legislators hold-out—particularly before an election as we saw in 2018—because they don’t want to risk being portrayed as disloyal by the public. And we ALL know the Leftist media would destroy Republicans just as Conservative media would do to Democrats.

Some think the answer might lie in the power of a strong personality—as happened in the case of Teddy Roosevelt, who was able to push Congress from its standoff. When Barack Obama was first elected president, many had hoped that he, too, could push through partisanship and get more cooperation. But he made no real effort to do that. Remember his “uniting” proclamation: “Elections have consequences.” In other words, he put Republicans on notice that all he needed was his pen and his cellphone.


At its basic level, politics can be a very personal game, requiring trust and mutual respect, much of which seems missing from today’s political scene. “Nobody knows anybody up here,” observed Joe Manchin, a moderate West Virginia Senator. “There just aren’t enough real relationships.”

If trust and mutual respect are necessary for Congressional action to discuss and pass meaningful legislation, I think we are in for a long wait. As we have seen in the current environment in D.C., nobody in Congress or the White House is jumping to embrace compromise of any kind. That’s sad, because the very nature of tackling major issues in Congress demands meaningful and honest discussion of the ideas of each side. I think that may be being done. But, infortunately, it seems gridlock jumps in right at that point. To get to an answer, each side must understand and accept that in negotiations, nobody can get everything they think is right and that they want. Both sides MUST give a little to find consensus.

Regarding this President, Donald Trump has a pretty convincing background in making deals in business. But even he as the great deal-maker that he is struggles to find consensus with those in Congress with different ideas. He’s shown flexibility in negotiations — often more than those in Congress with whom he negotiates.

But just as President Trump finds himself negotiating with very resolute and political lawmakers, those same lawmakers find themselves negotiating with the guy who wrote The Art of the Deal. They don’t yet show that they understand holding out in negotiations is part of the success in accomplishing resolution.

Lost in all this are those in the American public who can do nothing but stand and watch. That includes 800,000 federal workers who will now miss their second paycheck. It is sad that those innocent workers find themselves in the bullseye of Gridlock through no fault of their own. But it is even sadder that the very ones who could have taken actions to prevent the shutdown in the first place still are feeding the logjam.

It is ironic to hear Speaker Pelosi and Minority Leader Schumer say again and again, “Trump could stop this shutdown and reopen the government in one day. We passed a bill in the House that will fund the government. It’s a shame that he will not put the welfare of Americans over his demands for an immoral border wall.”

Where’s the irony? They are telling Americans that Trump giving up and relenting on southern border safety measures that a majority of Americans want is the ONLY way to make government funding happen. They never mention the OTHER action that could do the exact same thing in one day: Democrats could fund and reopen the government in one day as well. How? Fund the bill that insures border security and funds the wall. They have all over and over in numerous interviews and speeches demanded those same measures themselves — including the Wall!

Why won’t they? Political expediency is more important than the financial welfare of those 800,000 workers and their families. THAT is the sad part of this debacle.


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