Gridlock is a popular talking point recently. It is, of course, a response to Congress’s inaction on just about everything. While this is what is exactly what is expected during a time of divided government and high polarization, there is an undercurrent that suggests gridlock is a representative problem. Mayor (LA), president-elect Antonio R. Villaraigosa mentioned on Meet the Press that politicians are “out of touch.”
This is a convenient reason for gridlock but in this case it’s misguided. This is hardly a representative problem. We like to blame politicians’ callousness toward our concerns and interests; however, more often than not they are doing the things we want them to do. They respond to individual concerns, represent their districts, and secure benefits. In this case, there is no compromise because everyday American’s are not in a position to compromise. Too many people fail to grasp the reality of the situation. Instead, they cling to their beliefs that tax-cuts raise government revenues, entitlement reform isn’t necessary to balance the budget, the President was born in another country, and that Republicans want seniors to suffer without medical benefits. Each of these tropes may be false but they are nonetheless believed. So it’s really not surprising the two parties can’t find common ground. Compromising on these issues would likely lead to their defeat later next year.
The difference now is that gridlock permeates seemingly routine, and relatively trivial, governmental matters. I’m referring to blocking nearly every Obama appointee from high profile officials to sub-deputy-paper pushers. And this doesn’t highlight a representative problem as much as an institutional problem. The design of government is meant to slow down the process, at times to a virtual standstill. However, there are procedures, primarily in Congress, that are doing this too effectively. We need to revisit the filibuster, of course, but we also need to address the larger problem of this era: party power. As long as the party leaderships control bill referral, committee assignments, and floor procedures they will continue to legislate based on talking points that fail to conform to the reality of the nation’s problems. There is little room for individuality in this system, basically crushing innovative politics and compromise within Congress.
Until we address this on a broader, more systemic, scale compromise during divided government really isn’t in the cards. This is an institutional problem. Until the rules are changed and party power is undermined, we will continue to read about congressional pledges rather than actual legislation.