Don’t blame congressional gridlock for persistent problems

Despite what you hear from many academics, media pundits, and even members of Congress, legislative gridlock is not the primary cause of the failure to deal with the major problems facing the United States.

Don’t get me wrong. America faces an extraordinary range of problems today, perhaps the largest being how to deal with the monumental federal debt. But the difficulty in finding solutions to these problems is attributable to major policy differences in the public at large and not to imperfections in our federal legislative system.

Take a look at the facts. The last Congress passed more legislation than any since President Franklin Roosevelt’s first two years in office. Whether or not you were pleased with that legislation, you can’t claim that the 111th Congress was ineffective or that the legislative trains were not running. A historically large number of major bills were passed, any one or two of which would have been major accomplishments for any Congress. Just to name a few:

  • The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. After many failed attempts over the years, this was the first major health care program to become law since Medicare and Medicaid more than 50 years ago.
  • The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which authorized spending and tax cuts of over $780 billion to create and save jobs and spur economic activity.
  • The Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, designed to correct the failures that caused the worst financial crisis in the United States since the Great Depression.
  • The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure Act, which redefined the relationship between credit card companies and consumers.

A number of other bills were passed that would have been significant achievements in any previous Congress. Among them: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act; the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization; and the Kennedy Serve America Act. This was a Congress that reformed Department of Defense contracting, gave the FDA the power to regulate tobacco, and ratified the New Start Treaty.

All this happened while Congress was involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and was confirming two Supreme Court Justices and the vast majority of the Obama administration’s Executive Department nominees.

So why do we keep hearing about legislative gridlock? I think there are a number of reasons.

First, the threat of the filibuster in the Senate was used to an unprecedented degree by the minority. While many oppose the use of the filibuster, it is important to remember that our founders very carefully designed the Senate to sacrifice efficiency in order to provide protection for political minorities. Even with filibuster delays, lots of legislation was passed.

Second, there was a great deal of highly publicized unhappiness within both parties with legislation that was passed with or without provisions they wanted. Health Care reform is the best example. Polling data show that not only were many Republicans unhappy with what was IN the bill, there were many Democrats who were unhappy with what was NOT IN the bill.

Third, this Congress did little to deal with the mounting federal debt. Dealing with the debt is especially difficult when you consider that members of Congress are elected to reflect the desires of their constituents, and America’s constituents are very sharply divided on the causes and especially the solutions to our national debt problem.

Fourth, those who opposed action by the Congress were able to put together extraordinarily successful media and grass- roots campaigns to discredit proposed legislation, especially comprehensive legislation. With enough money, it is unfortunately too easy to eviscerate complicated prospective legislation with carefully orchestrated public relations campaigns and simplistic advertisements.

Finally, Americans have always been skeptical about the federal government. That has become far more widespread

now, when the financial crisis that began in 2008 has caused so much pain to so many Americans who have lost their jobs, houses, and self-respect. Today, only about one quarter of Americans think the country is heading in the right direction. Historically, this kind of widespread pessimism has turned skepticism into cynicism and a belief that “government just doesn’t work.”

In times like this, it is good to remember how Winston Churchill summed it up: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

The problem is not our system. It is the difficulty and complexity of the challenges we face.

Originally published 29 May 2011 on