There is a very widely shared myth about "Washington." Accordingly, there are two camps, the right-wing GOP and the left-leaning Democrats, who are more or less matched. Each control one house of Congress, and command about half of the electorate. Hence, the gridlock.
Actually, much of American politics over the last four years or longer should be understood as a contest between the conservative "party" (most of the GOP and good part of the Democrats) and a liberal minority party. Recent case in point: On December 28, the conservative "party" in the Senate -- 42 Republicans, 30 Democrats and one Independent -- voted to extend foreign intelligence law, known as FISA. The bill was opposed by civil liberty advocates for threatening Americans' right to privacy.
Gridlock exists when one party pulls east and the other party pulls west and, hence, nothing budges. This is not the case in Washington. Here, most times, one party wants to move east and the other wants to stay put. Thus, what appears as gridlock is actually one conservative blocking victory after another. The fact that the last Congress passed only half as many bills as most previous ones does not trouble the conservatives one bit.
Moreover, what legislation that was enacted was a long cry from what the liberals preferred. Thus, a conservative amendment to the 2010 budget that expanded the amount of wealth exempt from the estate tax to over $5 million received support from all 41 Republican senators and 10 conservative Democrats, giving it the needed majority. Similarly, 24 Democrats helped push through a Republican proposal to establish a 60-vote threshold for the imposition of any new energy taxes during the next year's budget deliberations and 19 signed on to pass a Republican proposal to ban the use of federal funds by the EPA in enforcing lead paint regulations against specific contractors. On taxes, conservatives have managed to extend the Bush tax cuts throughout Obama's presidency, with 19 House Democrats and 3 Senate Democrats joining Republicans in rejecting Obama's proposal to raise taxes on only the 2 percent of Americans who earn over $250,000 annually. All in all, 25 percent of all Republican victories in the 111th Congress were made possible by conservative Democratic votes. Others were carried by the GOP alone. This is no gridlock, but a conservative headlock.
The stimulus package was much smaller than liberals believed necessary, and roughly a third of the package -- $286.9 billion -- was diverted to conservative preferences such as tax cuts, which, according to Keynesian economics, are much less stimulative than government spending.
The Affordable Care Act is considered by some a liberal victory, but it was advanced without even granting a hearing to the preferred liberal option of a single-payer system. Even moderate liberal proposals such as a public option were quickly jettisoned as the Obama administration sought to secure the support of powerful interest groups. Restoring the Glass-Steagall Act -- which, prior to being repealed prevented commercial banks from acting as Wall Street casinos -- was never seriously considered.
When it came to national security, Obama followed or expanded the conservative policies of his predecessor. He signed an extension of the Patriot Act and expanded Bush-era policies of domestic surveillance. He was prevented from closing Guantanamo bay and from trying terror suspects in civil courts, as preferred by liberals. Moreover, Obama has carried out five times as many drone strikes than the Bush administration and was the first to authorize the targeted killing of U.S. citizens abroad. For much more documentation of my thesis, go here.
A 2010 analysis of the Roberts Court described it as the "most conservative in decades," noting that four of the current justices are among the top six most conservative justices since 1937 and that Justice Kennedy -- who acts as the swing vote (though sides with conservatives about two-thirds of the time) -- is among the top 10. Thus, it should have come as no surprise that the Court, on a 5-4 decision, struck down the liberal McCain-Feingold campaign finance law in its Citizens United ruling, effectively allowing corporations to secretly inject unlimited amounts of money into elections. The same is true of the Court's decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, wherein the Second Amendment was interpreted as an individualized right to bear arms as opposed to that of a "well-regulated militia."
In short, pay no mind to the argument that Washington is not working or gridlocked. It works quite well, most times, for conservatives. Those who are out to change Washington -- better start by recognizing the way it works rather than being distracted by the myth that it is gridlocked.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University and author of Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human Rights World, published by Transaction.