Is Washington paralyzed?

To follow is an excerpt from the CQ Researcher report called "Gridlock in Washington" by Marcia Clemmitt, April 30, 2010

The word “gridlock” to describe a paralyzed government — one that moves legislation slower than some would like, or not at all — became common usage around 1980, according to Sarah A. Binder, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank. The concept is far older, however. “Alexander Hamilton was complaining more than two centuries ago about the deadlock rooted in the design of the Continental Congress,” the body of delegates who governed the colonies during the American Revolution, Binder said. [Footnote 9]

More recently, political scientists have defined gridlock as “the propensity of existing policies to be impervious to change in spite of preferences of a popularly elected majority to enact new policies,” explained Stanford University political science professor Keith Krehbiel. [Footnote 10] And, in many ways, such “gridlock is endemic to our national politics, the natural consequence” of a Constitution that set up two separate legislative bodies, the House and Senate, plus a separately elected presidency, with each entity having the power to stop the other two from enacting new policies, Binder said. [Footnote 11]

In some time periods, accusations of gridlock fly thick and fast, and the past few years has been one of those. However, analysts strongly disagree about whether we are experiencing gridlock and, if we are, whether it is a bad thing.

“The Senate is almost dysfunctional now,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. [Footnote 12]

“Congress just got a lot more done in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s than in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s,” wrote political analyst and former President George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum. [Footnote 13]

“Bitter partisanship and ideological extremism rule the day,” says Stanford's Fiorina. “A president many voters thought to be a pragmatic centrist chose to defer to the liberal agenda” of some congressional Democratic leaders “while the [Republican] ‘party of no’ digs in its heels and opposes them at every step. Politics increasingly looks like a collective ‘celebrity death match.’ Washington is gridlocked, paralyzed, stalemated. And one could write much the same story about California and some other state capitals.”

As of mid-March, the Senate “was backed up with 88 unconfirmed nominees” whose names President Obama has forwarded for approval to executive branch positions, wrote Ryan Grim, senior congressional correspondent for the Huffington Post blog. Demonstrating the increase in congressional foot-dragging just over the past decade, that total is “83 more than the Bush administration faced at this point in its tenure,” Grim said. [Footnote 14]

“I think you get the picture that” the held-up nominations constitute a “systematic” effort “to undermine the ability of the executive branch to do its job,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. [Footnote 15]

Further evidence of the roadblocks to changing national policy is the fact that, while a major health-care reform bill has been enacted, it “was done by the narrowest of margins” even though one party holds the White House and both houses of Congress, including one of the largest Senate majorities in decades, says Jeremy Mayer, an associate professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

“It's hard to gauge gridlock because Congress doesn't always have to do much” in a given year except pass some spending and budget bills and move other routine legislation, says Frances E. Lee, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland in College Park. Nevertheless, Lee and others say that this Congress has changed more policies than many predecessor congresses.

“It's tough to make a case for being in gridlock when Congress has passed the largest social reform in decades” in the form of the new health-care reform law, says Mayer.

In fact, a good case can be made for saying that “this is a truly historical Congress,” based on that accomplishment alone, says C. Lawrence Evans, a professor of government at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

“Since Obama's been president, there's been a major stimulus bill, major higher-education provisions,” and more, besides the health-care reform legislation, says Jones at the University of Texas. “I get so frustrated with people who talk about gridlock.”

Many political scientists point out that Congress' slow march to most legislation is the result not of dysfunction but of institutional procedures put in place by the Constitution mainly to ensure that federal laws reflect the long-term will of the people and are enacted only after significant deliberation.

“Congress does the will of the people at a given time,” but not the will of each fleeting “50-plus-one-percent majority,” says Jones at the City University of New York. If Congress were constructed to immediately change laws “to flip to what the will of the one deciding voter wanted, the result would be constant change” and instability, since the preferences of a bare majority “flip all the time,” Jones says. Instead, Congress acts only in response “to views that a sizable chunk of the public has held for a length of time.”

“It takes a lot of time to build a consensus” on how to solve major problems, says Donald Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project, a nonpartisan study project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Without there being a solid national consensus on solutions” to a given problem, it's right that Congress not rush to legislate, he says.

The public often “has too high expectations for government” to create instant solutions, Wolfensberger says. For example, “the government has been proceeding with work on the economy, but given the fact that about three-quarters of the people” in one recent poll said they believe that “Washington is broken, I don't think people see how much is actually being done,” he says. “The government doesn't specifically replace jobs. It's not like there's some button you can push.”

“Many people don't see that, by Congress talking, they're doing exactly what we want them to do” — which is deliberate over important issues, says Sean F. Evans, an associate professor of political science at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

Speed in legislating is overrated, says Lara Brown, an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University in Villanova, Pa., who served as a Department of Education official during the Clinton administration. “If we were passing laws as quickly as we were changing parties, we would have an incredibly unstable system,” says Brown.

Our stable system of laws “has created prosperity,” in part because “high predictability allows business to flourish,” says Brown.

The Issues:
* Is Washington paralyzed?
* Is party polarization threatening our democracy?
* Should Senate filibuster rules be reformed?

For more information see the CQ Researcher report "Gridlock in Washington" [subscription required] or purchase the CQ Researcher PDF.

[9] Sarah A. Binder, “Going Nowhere: A Gridlocked Congress,” Brookings Institution website, March 18, 2010,
[10] Keith Krehbiel, “Institutional and Partisan Sources of Gridlock: A Theory of Divided and Unified Government,” Journal of Theoretical Politics, January 1996, pp. 7–40.
[11] Binder, op. cit.
[12] Quoted in Peter Crabb, “How Political Gridlock Delays the Economy's Recovery,” Idaho Statesman online, Feb. 11, 2010,
[13] “Trading Smoke Filled Rooms for Gridlock,” Frum Forum blog, March 1, 2010,
[14] Ryan Grim, “Jim Bunning's Back: Blocking Nominees Over Canadian Smoking Law,” Huffington Post blog, March 16, 2010,
[15] Quoted in ibid.