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Gov't dysfunction may be baked into the system

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TOM RAUM | May 22, 2013 03:23 AM EST | AP

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WASHINGTON — The works do seem to be "gummed up" on Capitol Hill. And President Barack Obama isn't the only one to say so.

Yet despite years of hand-wringing in both parties, little progress has been made toward changing congressional rules on filibusters, senatorial "holds" on presidential nominees and other stalling ploys.

Inhibiting forward motion is the fact that all lawmakers are keenly aware that their party is always just one congressional election away from losing – or gaining – majority control.

"I'm sure my colleagues are familiar with the old adage: `Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it,'" said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who spearheaded a largely unsuccessful effort in January to restrict filibusters.

In fact, many GOP delaying tactics now decried by Democrats were used by the Democrats themselves just a few years ago when Republicans were in charge.

Adding to the present obstacle course on Capitol Hill is a sudden rash of investigations into Obama administration steps and missteps.

Congress is taking off its legislative hat for now and donning detective garb as it rushes to probe three simmering controversies: the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups that sought tax-exempt status; allegations of a cover-up after the terrorist attack last September that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya; and disclosure that the Justice Department secretly obtained a raft of phone records from Associated Press reporters and editors in search of a leaker.

By nearly all accounts, use of congressional obstructive tactics – especially in the Senate, where debate time is generally unlimited – has been rising.

In particular, the flurry of procedural roadblocks – mostly by Republicans – have "gummed up the works," Obama says. "Right now, things are pretty dysfunctional up on Capitol Hill."

Gridlock is being reinforced by the refusal of many Republican incumbents to buck the party line on certain hot-button issues – a measure of the clout wielded by tea party activists and conservative lobbies like the National Rifle Association. GOP incumbents fret about possible primary challenges from the right in the 2014 midterm elections.

Strong GOP resistance to tighter gun-control measures, for instance, ignores polls showing overwhelming public support for more gun-sale background checks. And nearly lockstep Republican opposition to tax increases ignores wide public backing for higher taxes on the wealthy.

The legislative carnage for Obama increases even as he wrestles with damage control.

_ Despite rising gun violence and the Boston Marathon bombings, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives hasn't had a director for six years. Obama's nomination of Acting ATF Director B. Todd Jones for the job remains mired in Senate GOP obstruction.

_ Obama's nominations of Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Thomas E. Perez as labor secretary and Penny Pritzer to lead the Commerce Department also face stiff GOP resistance.

_ Some 85 federal judgeships around the country remain vacant. (In many cases, Republican senators are breaking with tradition and refusing to even make recommendations to Obama for their own states.)

These days, hardly anything can be approved in the 100-member Senate – even commonplace measures – with fewer than 60 votes. Democrats control 55 votes at most. It takes 60 votes to overcome procedural delaying tactics and move ahead with legislation.

"Divided government in a time of extreme partisan polarization is a formula for gridlock," said congressional scholar Thomas E. Mann at the Brookings Institution think tank.

Mann, co-author of "It's Even Worse Than It Looks ...," a book about governmental logjams, said filibusters historically were reserved for weighty issues like civil rights legislation or widely controversial appointments. "Now we have an automatic 60-vote hurdle for virtually every piece of legislation ... and a willingness to use tactics and to automatically oppose the president whenever he's for something."

And it's not just Congress that is stuck in the procedural mud, suggests Paul Light, a New York University professor who studies governance and political leadership. "I also think the presidency is dysfunctional. The state legislatures are dysfunctional. I think the entire government at this point is dysfunctional."

Light traces much of this dysfunction to sophisticated computer-assisted, once-a-decade redrawing of congressional and legislative district lines. Republican districts have become more purely conservative and Democratic districts have become more purely liberal as new lines are minutely drawn and fine-tuned by both sides for political advantage.

People who live on one side of a street can suddenly find themselves in a different congressional district from their neighbors across the street.

That's helped officeholders of both parties keep their seats. But it's also worked against consensus-building and compromise in Washington as national lawmakers play to their carefully sculpted home-district audiences. Reid tried to restrict filibuster use after the November elections gave Democrats continued – if narrow – Senate control. But the deal the majority leader thought he'd struck with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., fell through.

Instead, Reid and McConnell agreed to a watered-down plan that tweaked the filibuster guidelines – but left the rules largely unchanged.

Filibusters historically are talk fests in which senators hold the floor with speeches for hours and days on end. But now, even the mere threat of a filibuster is usually enough to bring things to a grinding halt.

Blame the Founding Fathers in part for today's gridlock.

While filibusters and "holds" are not expressly mentioned in the Constitution, by giving each state two senators, the Constitution bestowed disproportionate leverage to small-population states, which today includes many Southern, prairie and Western Republican-leaning "red" states.

And in the House, Republicans benefit from being more evenly distributed across states, while Democrats tend to cluster in cities and inner suburbs, which effectively dilutes their vote.

"There are all kinds of anti-democratic features in our system, which, I think, if Americans thought about it enough, it would depress them," said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist. "Some of them were built in by the framers and some of them were added later on."

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