NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Government in Gridlock

November 6, 2002

Republicans have retaken control of the House and Senate. But even before the results were in, the outcome could have been predicted: gridlock in Congress.

The fundamental reason for gridlock is that it's the way the Founding Fathers wanted it. They created two legislative chambers that were elected quite differently (the Senate was originally elected by state legislatures), with different terms and rules. Thus, even when the same party controls both houses, there are institutional reasons why they will differ on the issues.

They did so because they wanted power to be diffused and to create checks and balances.

  • These constraints are very powerful and greatly restrict the ability of one party to implement its agenda even when it has the White House and a majority in both the House and Senate.
  • Bill Clinton suffered his greatest legislative defeats in 1993, when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.
  • The stimulus bill died after a Republican filibuster in the Senate, and health care reform collapsed because Democrats in Congress had their own ideas about how to do it.
  • Even now that the Republicans control both houses, big issues that they might like to push, such as Social Security or tax reform, cannot be pursued without bipartisan support.

Political scientists complain about this situation all the time, but polls have long shown consistently that the American people like divided government, like gridlock, and don't trust either party to hold all the keys. That is why divided government has been the norm in the postwar era. The only thing that is new is party registration, turning the historical liberal/conservative split into an explicit Republican/Democrat division.

Source: Bruce Bartlett, senior fellow, National Center for Policy Analysis, November 6, 2002


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