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Things Might Be Worse, If Congress Got Its Act Together

The Capitol as seen from the Russell Senate Office Building.
J. Scott Applewhite
The Capitol as seen from the Russell Senate Office Building.

The sense that Washington is hopelessly gridlocked has become a source of national despair.

Approval ratings for both Obama and Congress continue to tumble. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday found that only 22 percent of voters are inclined to give their own representatives another term — a record low for that poll.

Despite this disapproval, though, a stalemate might not be all bad.

It's not just Congress that's split — the public is divided on nearly every issue, too. So, if Washington were, in fact, able to act, it's possible Americans might be even angrier than they are now.

"If the federal government were passing a constitutional amendment restricting abortion, or if they were passing a national gay marriage act, you'd actually find much more unhappiness," says Lara Brown, a political scientist at George Washington University.

Is Gridlock Good?

Failure to deal with the nation's serious problems is a righteous source of frustration. But — absent majority support in the country for nearly any policy approach — voters might be even more unhappy if Congress were to act in any robust way, Stanford University political scientist Morris Fiorina suggested recently on the Washington Post's popular Monkey Cage blog.

Gridlock may be maddening, in other words, but the alternatives might be worse.

"Gridlock is good," says William Connelly, a political scientist at Washington and Lee University. "I'm not the first person to say it."

Neither party is happy when the other attempts to ram through one-sided legislation. Democrats didn't like it in 2005 when President George W. Bush wanted to privatize parts of Social Security, and Republicans have never stopped complaining that Democrats were able to take advantage of their congressional majorities in 2010 to push through the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans may have been playing politics by withholding any support for Obamacare, but the health care law certainly hasn't gained popularity since its passage.

"Passing it without any Republican support was problematic, at best, and paved the way for the contentiousness and doggedness of Republicans now in aiming to repeal and replace it," Connelly says. "The system is not meant to be simple majority rule, where a fleeting majority, as measured by public opinion polls, dictates legislation."

The Need For Consensus

By contrast, most major pieces of legislation in the 20th century — the creation of Social Security back in the 1930s and the interstate highway system in the 1950s, or the civil rights laws of the 1960s — received bipartisan congressional support in the end, reflecting consensus in the country. In that regard, Obamacare was a departure.

There's no such consensus now on changes to tax policy or immigration law or education. If Congress were to push through major legislation on a regular basis, it would invite a backlash, much as Obamacare did, suggests Brown, the George Washington political scientist.

Americans might hate inactivity, but they'd like finished products even less, according to Brown. That may be one reason why power has kept seesawing in elections over the past decade, as the two parties have taken turns winning and then overreaching.

"People are polarized, it's so clear on just about every issue," she says. "It is just a fact that we don't have the public consensus that once existed."

No Chance For Compromise

Democrats can make a fair case that Republicans had no interest in negotiating when it came to the health care law — or just about anything else that's come up during Obama's time in office.

When power is divided, there's no alternative to negotiation and compromise, says Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who served in the House from 1965 to 1999. That's the way the American system of government was set up.

But today's politicians often seem more interested in scoring points and waiting for the next election than coming up with a deal.

Congress passed hardly any laws in 2013. This year threatens to be even less productive.

"The premise when I was there, and for 200 years in the Congress, was that we have to reach an agreement," Hamilton says. "Today, I'm not sure that premise exists."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.