THE BLOG
04/02/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Gridlock in Congress: Who Will Blink First?

The back-and-forth intransigence between Republicans' in Congress and President Obama over such polarized issues as health care and deficit reduction must seem to many like watching Kennedy and Khrushchev square off eyeball-to-eyeball during the Cuban missile crisis: which side will blink first?

With Scott Brown soon to become the 41st Republican in the U.S. Senate, and as a result, ending the Democrats' supermajority, more gridlock is expected to set in, unless someone works some magic awfully soon -- leading many to wonder whether any bipartisanship is possible with the 111th Congress.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "gridlock'' was first used in Paul Theroux's 1981 novel Mosquito Coast ("I tell you Charlie, it's an imperfect world, America's in gridlock''). The Financial Times caught onto the word two years later when on May 2, 1983 they wrote: "The political 'gridlock' in Congress might mean that no budget resolution could be passed for fiscal year of 1984.''

Since then, "gridlock'' has become a common term to describe Congress locked into a stalemate over passing any legislation.

Though Democrats and Republicans in the present Congress have reached agreement during the financial crisis on areas affecting the tumbling economy, such as with the stimulus bill and banking reform, other, more ideological areas, like health care and deficit reduction, have run into choppy waters, with both sides refusing to give an inch.

Voices from the right say jittery voters are at odds with Democrats and health care reform, along with their recklessness in running up the deficits to alarming heights, while voices from the left say Republicans just want to run out the clock on the Obama administration, and deny him a historic legislative victory with midterm elections scheduled for the end of the year.

Was this what the Framers had in mind when they wrote the Constitution, making it virtually impossible for drastic reform to take place with a bicameral legislature?

It sure looks that way.

According to Sarah A. Binder's book Stalemate: Causes and Consequences of Legislative Gridlock, "James Madison bequeathed to us a political system designed not to work, a government of sharply limited powers.'' Binder goes on to write the Framers had a profound appreciation for gridlock, designing a system that would in fact guarantee gridlock.

Other legal scholars point out that the gridlock component of the Constitution is there to hold legislators accountable to the changing mood of voters over public policy.

With the Democrats controlling both houses of Congress and a popular president in the same party, why hasn't the 111th Congress been able to seal the deal on health care reform?

One reason for this may be attributed to the fact that most Democrats are on one extreme, Republicans on other far end, without any coalition from both parties occupying the center.

Congressional scholars, for example, point to the 83th Congress (1953-55) during the Eisenhower administration, when Republicans' held a single-vote majority in the Senate and less than a dozen in the House. Those on the right were able to come together with a large bloc in the middle, leaving those on the far left with little leverage. This centrist Congress successfully passed a Social Security Expansion Act, the Housing Act of 1954, the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, the Agriculture Act of 1954, and the Communist Control Act of 1954, which banned the Communist party, a move spearheaded by the Democratic Party.

As Charles M. Cameron writes in Veto Bargaining "Southern Democrats, moderate Democrats, and liberal-progressive Republicans could find a working majority to support the creation of national infrastructure, the development of national resources, and anticommunism abroad and at home.''

Despite being saddled with a Republican Congress, Harry Truman during the 80th Congress was able to build a bipartisan foreign policy coalition in containing communism and rebuilding Europe through the Marshall Plan.

And the most recent example of a bipartisanship at its best came when the Republicans, running under the banner of "Contract with America'' won control of Congress during in 1994, in one of the largest midterm gains since 1946, which added 52 GOP seats to the House, while capturing eight seats in the Senate.

In 1996, the Clinton White House and a Republican controlled House of Representatives found it in their best interest to agree on important legislation rather then lock horns in an ideological stalemate. It was in 1996, remember, when Welfare Reform was passed, the line-item veto was passed, as was the Anti-Terrorist Act, the Health Insurance Portability Act, Immigration Reform, as well as Telecommunications Reform.

David Mahew, professor of Political Science at Yale University, points out the Republicans don't exactly hold a monopoly on acting like obstructionists or being labeled the party of no.

"Party polarization," Mayhew writes in an email, "has been the norm for at least twenty years, especially in the House.'' "I don't see the Republicans as being especially responsible for this. Both parties have a large paw print on it.''

Mayhew in his 1993 book, Divided We Govern, argues it matters little whether one party controls the White House and Congress. Historic legislative innovation has been accomplished in both unified and divided control. What usually leads to successful legislation being passed, according to Mayhew, is the shift of political moods guiding policy, along with the rise of issues that cut across ideological differences.

Binder echoes this sentiment in her article "Elections and Congress's Governing Capacity'' when she writes: "our political system requires broad, and usually bipartisan, coalitions to adopt major policy change -- coalitions that are easier to build when legislators occupy the political center.''

Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, tells me last June only 37 percent of independents disapproved of President Obama. In January of this year, by comparison, 48 percent of independent voters now disapprove of Mr. Obama's performance.

This might suggest that it matters little if Democrats control both the White House and Congress; if they're losing the center of the country, their majority is a fragile one unless some kind of bipartisanship begins filling the air.

The only question is: who will blink first?

***
Productive Congresses:

• The 80th Congress (1947-48) was the most productive Congress, when Democrat Harry Truman was in the White House and the Republicans controlled the Congress. During this period, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley act, (an anti-union rollback of the Wagner Act); approved aid to Greece and Turkey, passed the National Security Act of 1947 (when military branches of government became unified under one Defense Secretary), passed the 22nd Amendment, (limiting the president to two-terms), passed the Marshall Plan (European Recovery Plan), passed an income tax cut (over Truman's veto), and passed the Water Pollution Act of 1948.

• Another highly productive Congress was the 88th Congress (1963-64), with Democrat John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in the White House and a Democratic controlled Congress. During this period, the followings bills passed: the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was ratified, aid to medical schools (student loans, buildings), Clean Air Act of 1963, Equal Pay Act of 1963 (outlawing gender discrimination), Civil Rights Act of 1964, (banning discrimination in public accommodations), Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (LBJ's anti-poverty program), JFK's tax cut (to spur economic growth), the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, and the Food Stamp Act of 1964.

• The last Congress to coalesce and pass major legislation came with the 89th Congress (1965-66) during Johnson's ``Great Society''. Bills passed during the period, included: Medical Care for the Aged, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD was established); regional medical centers for cancer, disease, stroke in the form of federal grants, Immigration Reform (ended quotas), the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities was established, Higher Education of 1965, (scholarships and insured loans for college students), Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965, Excise Tax Reduction Act of 1965, Department of Transportation established, Air pollution control (aid to states and locales), and a minimum wage increase.

Source: Divided We Govern, by David R. Mahew

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