Modern American politics has been dominated by one word—gridlock. The last two years of the Bush presidency, with a lame duck Republican President presiding over a Democratic Congress, only gave us a taste of what was to come. The first two years of Barack Obama acquainted all Americans with the word “filibuster” as debate over the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) reached the boiling point in the Senate. The 2010 Midterm elections brought the Tea Party Express to Congress, ushering in members implacably opposed to compromise to the Hill as Republicans regained the House. The past four years of Obama’s Presidency have been dominated by partisan battling and gridlock while Congressional approval ratings have plummeted precipitously.
In the creation of a Legislative Branch, the Founding Fathers were sure to make Congress a strong check on Executive authority. The Senate, in particular, has long been—and especially in recent history—the chief element in Congressional gridlock. The crux of the Senate’s time-tested ability to defy Presidents, parties, and even popular will is the filibuster. For more than half of our nation’s history—until 1917—one solitary Senator could hold the floor for as long as he wanted. No one could make him stop talking until he wanted to. Finally, under pressure from President Woodrow Wilson, the Senate passed Rule 22, enabling cloture, closing off debate on a pending measure if two-thirds of the Senators present voted in favor. In 1949, that rule was amended to cloture to be invoked on any motion, closing off a loophole left by the original rule. That rule was changed again in 1975 so that only 60 votes would be needed for cloture.
One of the best known examples of Congressional gridlock took place under the Presidency of Harry Truman. Harry, himself a former Senator, had practically his entire agenda killed by Congress. Truman’s animosity towards the legislative branch crescendoed into the 1948 presidential election when Truman spent much of his campaign castigating the “Do-nothing 80th Congress.” In that election, in one of the greatest political upsets of American history, (the iconic photograph of that election shows Truman holding a Chicago Tribune Newspaper with the headline “Dewey defeats Truman,” which had been erroneously printed following exit polls but before the results were tallied) Truman managed to defeat Thomas Dewey, channeling the public’s anger at Congress. However, Truman—prophetically—continued to have trouble with Congress, and the public anger displayed so prominently in the Presidential election did not translate to the Congressional and Senatorial elections.
In 2008, Barack Obama was elected to the office of the President, buoyed by a tide of anti-Republican sentiment resulting from the unpopular Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the contemporaneous financial crisis. That election also ushered in large Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate, with 257-178 and 59-41 margins. Obama used those newfound majorities to push the passage of an Economic Stimulus package and bail out the Auto industry. In April, 2009, the defection of Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter gave the Democrats a filibuster proof supermajority, which they used to pass the Affordable Care Act in 2010. However, the death of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy (D) and the subsequent upset win of Republican Scott Brown deprived the Democrats of their supermajority, and legislative proceedings grinded to a halt.
The 2010 midterm elections ushered in a Republican majority in the House, fueled by the populist tea party movement. The Democrats retained control of the Senate, but their majority dwindled. Then real gridlock started. If you thought the months of debate leading to the Passage of the Affordable Care Act was long and drawn out, the previous four years have seen no major legislation make it to the desk of the President. The 112th Congress (2011-2012) was the least productive Congress on record, as it enacted only 284 laws. So far, the 113th Congress (2013-2014) has enacted just 125 laws, and we are already more than halfway through the term. Meanwhile, headlines have been filled with virulent attacks from both sides, and Congressional ineptitude is widely documented—in fact, approval ratings of Congress have hit their lowest numbers on record. So, what has led us to this point? Why is it that our elected representatives can’t get things done anymore? As far as I can tell, there are a couple of main reasons.
I believe that gerrymandering and the polarization of political views are the two main forces contributing to Congressional gridlock. Congressional districts are redrawn every ten years due to the Census, and when the districts are redrawn to benefit a specific party or candidate, it is called gerrymandering. This process has always been legal in the United States, but rarely has it been abused as much as it has recently. In the Election of 2012, the Democrats received 1.4 million more votes for the House of Representatives than Republicans, but ended up with a 201-234 minority. Gerrymandering—a practice utilized widely by both parties—has also made a great contribution to Congressional gridlock. When districts are gerrymandered, it tends to make certain districts overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican. As a result, the representative of that district often has to worry more about the party primary than the general election and thus takes a more partisan approach to governing, attempting to placate a more partisan constituency. This leads to a body of representatives that is, on the whole, more partisan.
As representatives have become more extreme, so have their constituents. A recent Pew Research Poll reveals that 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican. In addition, 27% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans see the other party as a threat to the nation’s well-being. Even more dangerously, people consider politics when making friends: “People with down-the-line ideological positions – especially conservatives – are more likely than others to say that most of their close friends share their political views.” (Pew Research Poll) To make matters worse, those who are the most ideologically extreme are most likely to vote and contribute to political campaigns; the centrist Americans are the ones whose voices are heard the least. Gerrymandering and the polarization of Americans’ political views, both of which add fuel to the others’ fire, play huge roles in contributing to partisan gridlock and paralyzing Congress—paralyzing the Federal Government as a whole.
Caro, Robert. The Life of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate. New York: Vintage Books, 2002. Print.
CNN. Election Center 2008. Web. 7 Jul. 2014. http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2008/results/main.results/#val=S.
Govtrack. Bills by Final Status Comparison. Civic Impulse, LLC. Web. 8 July 2014. https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/statistics.
Pew Research Center. Political Polarization in the American Public. Web. 7 July 2014. http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/.
Shi, David, and George Tindall. America: A Narrative History. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2010. Print.
Wang, Sam. The Great Gerrymander of 2012. The New York Times. Web. 7 July 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/03/opinion/sunday/the-great-gerrymander-of-2012.html?pagewanted=all&module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar%2C[%22RI%3A7%22%2C%22RI%3A15%22]&_r=0.
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