“Standstill Nation” as the New Abnormal? The Truth Behind Gridlock

On Sunday, the New York Times closed out its “Week in Review” section after a run of 76 years. With Republicans and most Democrats back singing the praises of deregulation, smaller government, and tax cuts less than three years after that old song brought the world to its knees, we should probably have expected a grateful “Invisible Hand” would drop by to wave goodbye.

And so it happened. New York Times correspondent Peter Baker celebrated the famous Hand's magical ability to resolve not economic complexity, but political stalemate. “Mad at Beltway gridlock and can’t take it anymore?” asked the headline. To which Baker answered: “Paralysis (alas) is one way things are supposed to work.” He went on to explain that “for all the handwringing about how the system is broken, this is the system as it was designed and is now adapted for the digital age.” In support of this complacency, Baker enlisted Vice President Joe Biden, who “emerged last week to defend the system's ability to get things done despite all appearances to the contrary. It may be maddening, it may be drawn out, but he argued, at the end of the day, Washington does what it has to do.”

Thus Baker's argument continued, leavened only by a few careful hedges noting that reality has not as yet conformed to this Panglossian script and that unemployed Americans might assess the government’s paralysis a little differently. At the very end, Baker cautiously put forward a suggestion first broached by Peter Orzag, formerly President Obama's budget chief before he fled to Citigroup, that the Hand might, like so many other aging Americans, benefit from a prosthesis: legislation that would remorselessly chop government programs unless Congress acted to stop it.

Let's try to clarify why Congress is actually gridlocked. The bottom line is, alas, a bottom line. It is not complicated. And it has nothing to do with any design for a digital age, as Baker proposes.

In the mid-1980s, a group of insurgent Republicans broke with the long established norms governing how the US House of Representatives transacted business. Led by Newt Gingrich, it derided older Republican House leaders as timid, unimaginative, and too inclined to compromise with Democrats. Self-styled “revolutionaries” launched vigorous public attacks on Democrats as they trumpeted their own agenda of deregulation, budget cuts, lower taxes, and a baker’s dozen of social issues, from abortion to opposition to all forms of gun control.

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Result? The House boiled over. Statistical measures of Congressional behavior show that party line votes jumped sharply.

Gingrich and his allies were painfully aware that transforming the GOP's gains at the presidential level into a true “critical realignment” of the political system as a whole required breaking the Democratic lock on Congress. So they shattered all records for Congressional fundraising in their drive to get control of the House. Their success in this and their parallel campaign to rally major parts of the media to their standard are what polarized the system. The GOP insurgents emphasized fundraising, not just through the usual publicly reported vehicles like the national party committees, but also GOPAC, a political action committee that Gingrich had controlled since 1986, which operated mostly in secret.

In 1992, in the midst of a recession, the Republicans lost the White House. But their dreams of a sweeping political realignment did not die. In fact, by clearing centrist Republicans out of their perches in the White House, the loss probably helped Gingrich and his allies.

Completely undaunted, Gingrich, Republican National Chair Haley Barbour, and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Phil Gramm orchestrated a vast national campaign to recapture Congress for the Republicans in the 1994 elections. With the economy stuck in a “jobless recovery” and Democratic fundraising sputtering, the Republicans won control of both houses of Congress.

The tidal wave of political money they conjured allowed Gingrich, Gramm, Barbour and Co, to brush aside older, less combative center-right Republican leaders and persist in their efforts to roll back the New Deal and remake American society in the image of free market fundamentalism. Once in power, the Republicans institutionalized sweeping rules changes in the House and the Republican caucus that vastly increased the leadership's influence over House legislation. They also implemented a formal “pay to play” system that had both inside and outside components.

On the outside, DeLay and other GOP leaders, including Grover Norquist, who headed Americans for Tax Reform, mounted a vast campaign (the so-called “K Street Project”) to defund the Democrats directly by pressuring businesses to cut off donations and avoid retaining Democrats as lobbyists. Inside the House, Gingrich made fundraising for the party a requirement for choice committee assignments. Senate Republicans, led by Phil Gramm and other apostles of deregulation, emulated the House.

And so, alas, did the Democrats. Watching the Republicans restructure their national political committees into giant ATMs capable of financing broad national campaigns left the Democrats facing the same dilemma they had in the late seventies, as the GOP's Golden Horde first formed up behind Ronald Reagan. Democrats could respond by mobilizing their older mass constituencies. Or they could emulate the Republicans and just chase money. That battle had been settled in favor of so-called “New Democrats” (see Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers, “Right Turn.”) Dependent for many years on campaign money from leading sectors of big business where regulation kept recreating divisions – notably finance and telecommunications (Ferguson, “Golden Rule“) – the Democrats reconfirmed their earlier decision to go for the gold.

They followed the Republicans and transformed both the national party committees and their Congressional delegations into cash machines, with leaders in each chamber, but especially the House, wielding substantially more power than at any time since the famous revolt that overthrew Speaker Cannon in 1910-11. As the Republicans moved further and further to the right, the Democrats did, too, constrained only by the need to preserve something of their mass base.

A feedback loop running between Congress and the mass media intensified the whole process: Congressional leaders of both parties now focused intently on creating sharper party profiles (“brands”) that would mobilize potential outside supporters and contributors. So they spent enormous amounts of time and money honing messages that were clear and simple enough to attract attention as they ricocheted out through the media to an increasingly jaded public. And they and the Republican leadership staged more and more votes not to move legislation, but to score points with some narrow slice of the public or signal important outside constituencies. For the same reasons, they made exemplary efforts to hold up bills by prolonging debate or, in the Senate, putting presidential nominations on hold.

Contrary to what popular pundits may say, there is nothing “normal” or constructive about a Congress dominated by centralized parties. We should not accept a Congress presided over by leaders with far more power than in recent decades, running the equivalent of hog calls for resources, trying to secure the widest possible audiences for their slogans and projecting their claims through a mass media that was more than happy to play along with right thinking spokespersons of both parties. The idea that putting government programs on an automatic chopping block is a step forward is equally outlandish. This is hardly government “doing what it has to do.” It may be what it is paid to do. But no one should confuse this with public policy that serves the interests of all Americans.