The complaints and worry and agonizing anxiousness about the fiscal cliff and Washington gridlock have an alarming air of coming apocalypse. Phrases wafting around include but are not limited to “divided dysfunctional government,” “the worst Congress ever,” and “the grip of partisan gridlock.”
The mixed election results—call them a political mulligan—have, many argue, set us up for more of the same horrible things we have endured since the 2010 congressional elections: Two congressional houses split between competing parties and, consequently, a government where nothing gets done.
The House of Representatives is controlled by a party opposed to the president while the Senate is pro-administration. Republicans and Democrats are locked up in a bottle like ideological scorpions. A gridlocked government is bad, bad, bad, and we must do something to “get this country moving again.”
Naturally this is all the fault of hyper-partisan principals in Congress who have lost their knowledge, if they ever had it, of the art of compromise. (Let me add, in the interest of high bipartisanship, that the White House doesn’t seem to know much about it either.)
But there are major benefits to gridlock. I’m a “stop and smell the roses” political sort of guy. Especially if they are government roses, I want to know how much it will cost to cultivate them. Really, I’d happily settle for marigolds. I like that legislation is supposed to go along in a deliberately slow-motion process. The trouble seems to come from fast-tracked legislative impetuousness, and even no legislation is still a legislative decision. That’s what checks and balances are supposed to do: prevent precipitous action and sometimes guarantee no action at all. That is how we set it up.
We may lay the praise or the blame for that at the feet of James Madison. His Virginia Plan at the 1787 Constitutional Convention was the original framework, with some compromise, for what became the U.S. Constitution. The Convention created a two-chamber legislature, ensuring each served as a break on the other, and the later party system ensured a further internal check. There is always somebody watching.
Along with a list of comprehensive congressional powers, the Convention gave some exclusive fiscal power to the House and some exclusive power in foreign relations to the Senate, yet both must agree to legislation resulting from those exclusive powers. Add an executive with a veto over acts of the legislature (which also enjoys the power of executive impeachment), create an independent judiciary that can and has overturned decisions of both Congress and the president and—woohoo! Gridlock. It’s part of our constitutional DNA.
This isn’t the first Congress to be gridlocked. In the early years of Congress there were no party labels, but that doesn’t mean parties didn’t exist. From the very First Congress (1789-1791) Federalists (“pro-administration”) and Anti-Federalists (“anti-administration”) vied against each other. By the Third Congress (1793-1795), we are talking gridlock. Congress had a “pro-administration” Senate and an “anti-administration” House. Of 112 Congresses (the One Hundred Thirteenth has yet to be seated), twenty-one have been party gridlocked.
Twenty-two of our forty-four presidents served during times when one house of Congress was dominated for at least some portion of the presidential tenure by a party in opposition to the president’s own.
That does not count the six presidents whose party was a congressional minority in both houses throughout their entire term. And only fifteen presidents have enjoyed all their presidential years with their party in control of both houses.
George Washington, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Grover Cleveland (both times), and Woodrow Wilson, among others, all faced a divided Congress. We’ve had twenty presidents since 1900; nine in total have been confronted with a divided Congress and, beginning with Ronald Reagan, every president since (except George H. W. Bush, whose party was in the minority his entire term).
Gridlocks appear to come in clusters: 1789-1797, two of four gridlocked; 1824-1861, six of seventeen gridlocked; 1875-1883, three of four gridlocked; 1887-1931, five of twenty-two; 1981-2013, five of sixteen.
For many periods in our national history, congressional gridlock has been a default setting. Yet from these Congresses has come an array of significant legislative acts. A gridlocked Congress admitted Texas to the Union on a joint resolution by the House and Senate, the first federal revenue sharing act was adopted by a gridlocked Congress, and the same Congress adopted the income tax.
Best I can see it, and this is my judgment call, a gridlocked Congress is never entirely a do-nothing Congress. Much of what Congress may or may not accomplish is a result of presidential leadership, flexibility, and his ability to charm Congress. There the record is plainly mixed, pretty much as it is with a Congress that isn’t gridlocked.
Russell E. Saltzman, a Lutheran pastor, was a congressman’s press secretary during the Ninety-Second and Ninety-Third Congress. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.
Party divisions of Congress
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