Congressional Gridlock: The Public Chain Gang


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The People are no fans of gridlock, from both the Right and Left, constituents are fed up with the ways of our recent congressional sessions. According to a ABC News/Yahoo! News poll the margin is more than 2-to-1 in favor of eliminating the gridlock in congress.

The statistics just blow you away… the use of delaying tactics has just skyrocketed. In the 1960s, about 8 percent of significant legislation was subject to delaying tactics like filibusters and holds. It is now about 70 percent. Obstructionism is now the hallmark of the Senate. – Tom Mann, Brookings Institute

What we have seen is the polarizing of the two political parties that has led to what former Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana states as:

Strident partisanship, unyielding ideology, a corrosive system of campaign financing, gerrymandering of House districts, endless filibusters, holds on executive appointees in the Senate, dwindling social interaction between senators of opposing parties and a caucus system that promotes party unity at the expense of bipartisan consensus.

Because of this, the people are largely ignored and compromise is now an event worth buying popcorn for. We have an ever more polarized congress that votes on party lines and filibusters or delays more bills than they actually vote on. We have a Congress that sees compromise as a sign of betrayal.

The graph below taken from shows just how polarized we are today. The horizontal axis represents years 1879 to 2011 while the horizontal axis measures political polarization. You will notice that the House is much more polarized as it has been in modern history, and the Senate more than in the past century.

At the same time, the graph below shows us that moderates have become an endangered species. Our current congress has lost almost all of its moderates and the few who have remained are either resigning or being ousted by extremists in their party.

It’s sad that now it takes only one or two Senators to kill a bill, just by threatening a filibuster (a procedural “killing” of a bill that can only be stopped by a 60 vote supermajority) or evoking a “personal hold,” once provided so sick congressmen or those out-of-state had time to return and join the debate it is now fodder ripe for use.

We want to get to the substance and not get stuck on procedure. A talking filibuster means that you would have to come to the floor and actually talk-talk as long as you wanted on the issue, which is the way it always had been, and then we would move to cut off debate and have a majority vote. – Senator Mark Udall (D-NM)

The sickening part is that when the vote came to change the filibuster procedure, which currently allows for a “silent hold” by anonymous Senators who don’t even have to be present, it failed to pass. The fact is that many in congress actually want gridlock. It means less work, and more clout with your party- unfortunately while trouncing the people who have elected representatives who are failing miserably at their duties.

Today, members routinely campaign against each other, raise donations against each other and force votes on trivial amendments written solely to provide fodder for the next negative attack ad. It’s difficult to work with members actively plotting your demise. – Senator Evan Bayh (Fmr. D-IN)

We have repeatedly seen the result of such gridlock, the loss our AAA credit rating can only be blamed on such an occurrence.  In 2010 the Senate’s rejection for a proposal for a bipartisan task force to bring the deficit under control is a clear example of what plagues congress today. While passing the Senate with a majority 53-46, the vote failed due to filibuster.

What makes this a horrible injustice to the American people is the fact that it was only opposed once the President endorsed it.  In the eleventh hour for political reasons, 7 Republicans who had previously supported and co-sponsored the bill switched sides. One of these defectors was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who had endorsed the plan as “the best way to address” the budget crisis and politically attacked the President for not supporting it. However, once Obama came on board, the political ammunition was exhausted and McConnell refused to stand with his own bill.

The change has been a slowly evolving one, a scene were Republicans and Democrats alike have moved ever more towards their base and have deserted the middle. A key turning point was the great geographical shift of the two Great Parties. In 1964 President Johnson signed the historic Civil Rights Act, and later the Voting Rights Act, with large bipartisan support but against the will of Southern-Democrats. That night in bed, Johnson is famously quoting saying:

I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.

He was right, southern whites unhappy with the newly granted rights of blacks revolted against the long-time Democratic base in the South. In 1964 the Republican Barry Goldwater, a staunch anti-civil rights proponent won the nomination for president. While he only carried six states, primarily in the deep south, it helped Nixon form a new front for the Republican party and beat Hubert Humphrey in 1968. Since then, the South has been the Republican’s most reliable voting base.

This geographic shift pulled moderates from both parties to their poles. Moderate Northern-Republicans were relatively quickly beaten out of office and Southern-Democrats became an endangered species. What also furthered this switch was the redistricting of house seats to provide “safe-zones” for party loyalists.

Political Scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal came up with a statistical scaling method called NOMINATE in which they have been able to diagram every congressional vote from the first to the current congress. What they have seen is an evolutionary change in the congressional partisan landscape.

Have a look at these diagrams below. The white space in the middle represents members’ political ideologies, left being liberal and right being conservative. You will see that from 1991 till today, the white space has grown exponentially. Furthermore, you will see the expected “cut-line” becoming more vertical, this represents a more strict partisan divide. At the same time, you will see the overlaps becoming ever more rare, meaning that “reaching” across the aisle just isn’t happening.

You clearly see the “cut-line” becoming more vertical, indicating a clear ideological divider on strict partisan lines. Furthermore, you see a serious increase in white space indicating that there is no middle ground anymore. The trend suggests that politicians vote with their party or caucus with blind unanimity. The lack of overlap means that there are no surprises, people vote just like their party wants them to.

The unfortunate victim of this trend is the People. Instead of a well oiled congress working together to solve real problems, our deficit, getting the economy back on track, avoiding default, and fixing a broken immigration system, we are subjected to political posturing on the American dime.

2 thoughts on “Congressional Gridlock: The Public Chain Gang

  1. Pingback: Congressional Gridlock: The Public Chain Gang | Political Features |

  2. Reply Robin Feb 5,2013 %I:%M %p

    A sad state of affairs, indeed. We’ve seen a few politicians brave the wrath of their party to reach across the aisle and vote their conscience, however, they are attacked for it from their party and many constituents. Being a politician is not easy task, as i’s impossible to please everybody.

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