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Stalemate and Gridlock: Why Canít Washington Get Anything Done?

- October 2013

Congress began the year in 2013 making decisions and passing legislation. Admittedly, much of what they did at the beginning of this year was finishing the job they failed to complete at the end of last year. Nonetheless, they were functioning as the Constitution intended: both houses of Congress passed identical legislation that was then sent to the President for his signature.

The productivity of a Congress is historically measured by the number of public laws enacted, although that begs the question of whether the country is better off with more or fewer new laws. But by the historical productivity measure, this Congress, so far at least, is one of the least productive in history, with only 43 public bills signed into law so far.

In the first few months of 2013, Congress passed and the President signed serious legislation: government funding bills, a major tax increase, a debt limit increase, disaster relief, FEMA funding, and the Violence Against Women Act. Certainly not all of these bills were business-friendly, but Washington was “working.”

Since May 1st, public laws enacted include a bill specifying the size of National Baseball Hall of Fame coins, two bills regarding Congressional Gold Medals, several regarding use of public lands or waters, five naming something after someone, others about flu vaccines . . . expedited air passenger screening for disabled vets . . . acknowledging donors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial . . . “Improving Job Opportunities for Veterans Act of 2013" . . . "Reverse Mortgage Stabilization Act of 2013". . . "Missing Children's Assistance Reauthorization Act of 2013". . . "Pay Our Military Act" . . .

There are more, but they are mostly more of the same. The signed legislation covers a fairly wide range of topics, but all have something in common: they are non-controversial and do not address any of the major issues facing the country today. As important as stabilizing reverse mortgages may be, that stabilization does nothing about our insolvent entitlement programs, the stagnant economic recovery, millions of Americans remaining unemployed, staggering deficits and public debt.

None of these bills dealt with the basic and fundamental obligation of Congress: funding government.

As of this writing we are still mired in a government shutdown, and possible default on our debt could be only days away. Unfortunately, today when Washington tries to tackle the big issues – taxes, spending, entitlements, deficits and debt limits – it grinds to a partisan halt.

After the government shut down began, the House GOP majority passed multiple bills that would have re-opened parts of government, including the National Institutes of Health and national parks and memorials. The Senate Democrat majority refused to even consider any of those bills, and the President threatened to veto them if they reached his desk.

While some House GOP conservatives – enough to deny Speaker John Boehner the majority he needs to pass bills – drew lines in the sand declaring that they would never vote to re-open the government unless Obamacare was defunded, the Senate Democrat majority moved the goal posts in the opposite direction and declared that they would not budge until spending cuts already enacted into law be rescinded and spending allowed to rise.

So why is Washington so partisan and divided?

Part of the problem is that gerrymandering of Congressional districts has created too many “safe” seats in Congress, contributing to the rise of the more radicalized conservatives in the Republican conference in the House. Many GOP Representatives fear – many are already facing – primary challenges by Tea-Party-type conservatives, who attack them for any vote seen as a compromise of conservative principles. That fear of conservative primary challenges is making it difficult for many members of the GOP caucus in the House to support anything less than often-unattainable “pure” proposals. (See the separate staff report on the fiscal issues.)

While primary threats on the Democrat side are not nearly as great, the large number of Democrats elected from very safe liberal districts and states are similarly less inclined to compromise. These safe-seat Democrat legislators vocally object to any willingness on the part of the President to negotiate with the House GOP majority, and consistently call for more spending, higher taxes and bigger government – because those demands are consistent with their voters’ priorities.

The statistics bear out the polarization of the American population: 96 percent of House Democrats were elected from districts that Obama carried; 94 percent of Republicans were elected from Romney districts. The majority of Senators were elected from strongly one-party states.

There is significant additional data suggesting that the polarization of the country is wide and deep.

In a May, 2013 NBC-WSJ poll, respondents were asked to decide which of two statements better represented their views:

“Government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people,” or
“Government is doing too many things better left to business and individuals.”
48 percent agreed with the first statement; 48 percent agreed with the second.

A recent Gallup poll asked “Which political party do you think will do a better job of keeping the economy prosperous?”
43 percent said Republicans; 42 percent said Democrats.

A newspaper story in mid-September reported on a poll asking respondents whether or not the debt limit should be increased:
46 percent said yes; 43 said no.
62 percent of Democrats said yes; 61 percent of Republicans said no.
48 percent of Independents said yes; 46 percent said no.

Other recent polls report similar results:
34 percent prefer government to do more; 32 percent prefer a more limited government.
53 percent of Democrats prefer more active government; 53 percent of GOP prefer less.

So, yes, Congress is partisan and divided and Washington seems broken. But it is not just Congress. The country is divided and partisan, and elected officials reflect their voters. Acknowledging the partisan divide in the country does nothing to solve the problem in Washington, of course, but it may at least put the crisis into perspective.