While many Americans like to gripe about the lack of progress on, well, anything in Congress, few of us are particularly interested in looking beyond facile reasons why it exists.
For example, most of the outrage centers on the people of Congress and their character. This is too superficial by half, IMHO. We have had venal, self-serving political hacks in office for centuries and stuff still got done. I can't find much evidence our current crop of legislators is markedly different than previous members.
Sarah Binder has studied the phenomenon for years. Her take on gridlock:
Three forces fuel today's gridlock. First, divided party control of government raises the bar against major policy change. Parties are the only glue for bridging policy and electoral differences between the ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, meaning that more can be done in periods of unified party control. Just compare President Obama's first two years in office (with Democrats controlling both branches) with the second two years (after Republicans captured the House). Congress was remarkably productive under unified control, enacting numerous landmark accomplishments, from health care reform to Wall Street reform. Under divided government, only do-or-die deadlines brought the parties to the table. Divided government continues in the 113th Congress, handicapping Congress even before it gets underway.Second, legislative parties have polarized over the past half-century, even though Americans remain centrist in their policy views. Polarization increases deadlock, because our political system requires large coalitions to adopt major policy change. Such coalitions are harder to build when few legislators occupy the ideological center. Increased polarization reflects the parties' ideological differences over the proper role of government, plus a strong dose of sheer partisan team play. As a result, much of congressional disagreement is strategic: The parties hold out for a full loaf rather than compromise on a half. Not surprisingly, when deadlines forced parties to the table in the 112th Congress, they often kicked the can down the road. As a result, the 113th Congress starts with a huge plate of leftovers, leaving little room for new issues.Third, stalemate is fueled by bicameral disagreement. Even when a single party controls both the House and Senate, disagreements arise that reflect electoral and institutional differences between the chambers. Bicameral differences are compounded when the parties split control of the chambers, as Congress's recent record attests. Bicameral obstacles remain high this year, with a smaller and more conservative Republican House facing off against a larger and more liberal Democratic Senate. [More]
One analysis I do find worth considering is the fundamental philosophical differences between Republicans and Democrats. It turns out intransigence is not a half-bad way to fight political battles.
Republicans vote more or less exactly the same way, regardless of what kind of district they represent. The Republican representing the squishiest, most RINO-ish district in the country votes almost as conservatively as the one representing the most bullet-munching conservative district in the country. Republicans are voting in lockstep to defeat Mr Obama's legislative priorities; Democrats are showing nowhere near the same kind of discipline in supporting them.This doesn't predict what might happen if Republicans gained control of the Senate, or of the presidency. It's possible that with more power Republicans would feel freer to disagree with each other. With their backs to the wall, out-of-power Democrats might feel the need to present a more united front. But basically Democrats have less voting discipline than Republicans. George W. Bush was detested by Democratic voters every bit as much as Mr Obama is by Republicans, but Democratic legislators cooperated with him to pass major education and Medicare reforms; they negotiated an immigration-reform bill with him, and would have passed it, had he not been abandoned by his own party.In other words, if all else fails, the gridlock of the American government will probably end the next time the country elects a Republican president, since Republican legislators have the discipline to stonewall Democratic presidents while Democrats are more willing to compromise. That asymmetry is probably infuriating to Democrats, but unless their legislators adopt different voting behaviour, it's not going to change. [More]But the driving force behind this discipline it the importance of gaining and holding political power as the paramount goal - not governing (getting stuff done).
One other theory about what could change this is also worth pondering.
“You should be depressed,” says Keith Poole. “It’s going to get worse.” Poole, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, has spent three decades studying congressional votes that stretch back to 1879. With collaborators Howard Rosenthal of New York University and Princeton University’s Nolan McCarty, he’s found that members of Congress are now less likely to vote against their party than at any time since the first decade of the 20th century.The small number of seats Democrats need to take the House (17) and Republicans to take the Senate (3) makes the problem worse, says Frances Lee of the University of Maryland. She argues a minority party with a plausible chance of reversing its fortunes in the next election has no incentive to cooperate with the majority to pass legislation. “They don’t want to cut deals that will blur the differences,” she says. From the 1950s to 1980, the Republicans couldn’t imagine a majority in Congress and settled for an ability to trade votes in exchange for altering Democrats’ bills. When Ronald Reagan won the White House, Republicans won the Senate and began to dream of the House, the beginning of an increasingly ruthless competition between the parties for control of the Capitol.McCarty is at least somewhat encouraged by the weakened filibuster. It may only address the symptoms of the larger problems, he says, “but some people can live fulfilling lives with illnesses, as long as they have the right drugs.” Lee is less optimistic. She says only one thing can force Congress to get back to legislating: One of the political parties must suffer a crushing defeat. [More]
It would be easy to despair of our future, but somehow in the midst of all this gridlock the country has emerged from a recession, ended two wars, and begun to address our health care problems. It could also be that freeing up unlimited outside money for candidates will have the effect of creating some free agents somewhat less tied to party discipline. I can see that helping compromise, but it will throw a new wrench in the works.
There is an economic question here: how much money can the political system absorb effectively? At some point, I would assume air-time commercials, robo-calls, mailers, GOTV volunteers ads, etc. reach a saturation point and produce few additional votes. Do we know where that level of spending is? Could we find out?
For years, scholars of elections have argued about whether campaign finance limitations adversely affect electoral competition. In this article, we examine how the institutional campaign finance restrictions differentially affect the performance of incumbents and challengers. Using elections for the state high court bench between 1990 and 2004, we demonstrate that candidate spending in judicial elections has diminishing marginal returns, but that the returns to challenger spending diminish more slowly than incumbent spending. Since this is the case, campaign finance restrictions that limit candidate spending disproportionately harm challengers, increasing the incumbency advantage and decreasing electoral competition. More specifically, we show that states with more stringent contribution limits have lower levels of candidate spending, and these restrictions thus put challengers at a competitive disadvantage. [More]
I could see more Americans becoming more inured, even resistant, to campaign efforts. We already dread the endless commercials and yard signs. While the big winner in unlimited contributions is those in the business of political campaigns and media, I could see a rapid decrease in bang for the buck.