Why gridlock in Washington?

The gridlock in Washington is due to uncompromising Tea Party control over the Republican Party.

US President Barack Obama recently warned Republicans that he will not negotiate on raising the debt ceiling [AFP]

For generations, American political leaders have proclaimed the exceptional virtues of the country’s political system. Official agencies, including the State Department, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and National Endowment for Democracy, provide assistance for American-style democracy promotion to governments around the world. So do the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute for International Affairs – government-funded organisations affiliated with the major American political parties. However, the near-failure to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff” in late December, coming on the heels of other recent spectacles of government dysfunction, prompts the question: why should the American political system serve as a model for other countries to emulate?

The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, passed at the 11th hour (in fact, it was passed after the official deadline of December 31, 2012 – near midnight on January 1, 2013), is a short-term fix to the self-imposed fiscal crisis. The last-minute agreement simply postponed the day(s) of reckoning for several months. Nor was the recent cliffhanger unprecedented. For years, American political institutions have apparently been in a state of near-paralysis (the qualifier – “apparently” – is intended to convey the fact that the system is working just fine for the top few percent, who for the past several decades have appropriated most of the benefits generated by economic growth). For example, in April 2011 the government was nearly forced to shut down all non-essential federal services and furlough 800,000 federal employees because Congress refused to pass a budget. Later that year, on August 2, 2011, with the US only hours away from reaching the deadline to avoid defaulting on the federal debt, Congress voted to raise the debt ceiling. 

It was this pattern that prompted two political analysts to publish a scathing critique of Congressional dysfunctions in early 2012 with the disturbing title, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. In a recent article updating their account, they went further: “[We] thought that the 112th Congress was the worst we had seen in our four decades in Washington. However, [recent events]… convinced us that it was the worst Congress ever.” What explains the current gridlock in Washington?


Passage of the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 enabled Congress to prevent falling off the so-called fiscal cliff – shorthand for legislation that, but for passage of the Taxpayer Relief Act, mandated increases in income taxes for all Americans and steep cuts in military and civilian spending. Instead, the Taxpayer Relief Act raises taxes for the small number of Americans whose annual taxable income exceeds $400,000 and left income tax rates unchanged for other Americans. However, because the agreement did not extend a previously enacted cut in the payroll tax, levied to finance social programmes, the net income of all working Americans and their families has been reduced. The agreement postponed for two months the substantial reduction in military and civilian programmes that had been scheduled to begin January 1, 2013. In effect, the agreement invited Congress to address the issue of spending cuts before the impending March deadline.

While the agreement forestalled major fiscal disruption for the time being, it was a ramshackle and inadequate attempt to deal with the problems that it was ostensibly designed to solve. The culmination of a protracted, tragi-comic, and embarrassing spectacle, the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (to paraphrase Winston Churchill) was not the end, nor even the beginning of the end. In less than two months, we may learn that it was not even the end of the beginning.

A place to begin to explain Washington’s current dysfunctional condition is the basic design of American political institutions, notably, the presidential system that allocates the executive and legislature independent powers. In contrast to a parliamentary system of fused powers, the separation of powers creates a built-in, that is, structural, potential for gridlock when each branch is controlled by an opposing party. The Constitution specifies that, in order for legislation to be adopted, a bill must be voted by both houses of Congress and approved by the President. This requirement invites deadlock when opposing parties control different political institutions. Moreover, Congressional procedures further constrain reform. For example, the Senate’s current filibuster rule specifies that a super-majority – 60 of the 100-member body – must support bringing a measure to the floor for a vote. In the House, the Speaker (that is, the leader of the majority party in the chamber) can prevent proposals from being scheduled for a vote. During the recent imbroglio over the fiscal cliff, House Republican Speaker John A Boehner refused to allow the House to vote on a measure passed by the Senate and supported by the President.

Granted that the present political conjuncture, in which the Democratic Party controls the presidency and Senate, and the Republican Party, the House of Representatives, creates the possibility for gridlock. However, the separation of powers, even with divided partisan control, does not guarantee gridlock. During previous periods in American history, divided government did not prevent compromise. In the 1980s, Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker of the House Thomas (“Tip”) O’Neill, Jr famously delivered bombastic partisan speeches during the day – after which they adjourned to the White House Family Quarters to socialise. Their camaraderie enabled them to negotiate political compromises across the partisan and ideological divide.

Reagan’s and O’Neill’s example has prompted some analysts to attribute the current gridlock to flaws in the personalities and governing styles of incumbent political leaders. Speaker Boehner has been criticised for lacking charisma and an ability to garner support from his Republican colleagues for deals that he has negotiated.

Political polarisation?

President Obama’s performance has come under especially close scrutiny. He has been faulted for maintaining an arms-length relationship with members of Congress. If only, so goes the critique, he invited them for a round of golf or dinner at the White House, opponents might be induced to become partners. Obama was also criticised for “out-sourcing” the recent fiscal negotiations to Vice President Joseph Biden. Political analyst Jonathan Chait has characterised Obama’s negotiating style by a dismissive term from poker: “Tight-weak… the worst of all worlds – when you have a weak hand, you lose, and when you have a strong hand you fail to maximise your position.” Chait claims that during the fiscal negotiations Obama needlessly squandered the gains he had amassed from his re-election.

The personalities of key players may partially explain why gridlock occurs. However, some highly successful political leaders in the past were hardly great negotiators. Moreover, Barack Obama has exquisite oratorical ability and John Boehner has demonstrated the ability to obtain sufficient support from his troops for choices they found highly distasteful. It is not persuasive to reduce Washington’s current dysfunction to the failings of political leaders.

Until recently, material incentives, known as earmarks, helped soften the hard edges of ideology and induced legislators to reach deals across the partisan divide. Earmarks, also known as pork barrel spending, involve expenditures authorised by Congress that are designated for specific local public works projects – a grant to build a public hospital in an Indiana county, a road in rural Nebraska, the famous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska (that figured in the 2008 presidential campaign). Incumbent legislators reap electoral rewards from earmarks by bringing home the bacon for their constituents. Congress prohibited earmarks several years ago, in response to pressure from the anti-government, anti-spending movement known as the Tea Party (more about the Tea Party below). This reform has significantly reduced the incentive for legislators to reach bipartisan compromises.

Many observers attribute gridlock to partisan polarisation, that is, deep divisions between the Democratic and Republican parties in which compromise is considered to be a liability rather than a virtue. It is indisputable that the two parties are far apart on issues and unwilling to compromise. But describing the problem as partisan polarisation implies that the two parties are equally far from the centre of the political continuum, as measured by the policy preferences of their respective electorates or leaders and by the substance of their policy positions.

Tea time

In fact, polarisation is not symmetrical: The Republican Party (GOP) is much further to the right than the Democratic Party is to the left; and it is far less willing to compromise. Therefore, explaining gridlock requires understanding what has produced the Republican Party’s rightward ideological shift and intransigence. The answer can be provided in one – or rather, three – words: The Tea Party! Gridlock, partisan polarisation, and the rightward thrust in contemporary American politics derive from the Tea Party’s takeover of the Republican Party, which in turn has enabled the Tea Party to paralyse Congress and the entire American government.

The Tea Party movement erupted in 2009, soon after the election of the first African American president in American history, a Democrat who was markedly more liberal than his Republican predecessor. The Tea Party is an ideological outlier within American politics, given its fierce opposition to tax increases; strong support for a minimal federal government achieved by substantial cuts in federal spending on social programmes (or, preferably, their privatisation); and harsh immigration policies. The Tea Party’s refusal to bargain and compromise also contrasts with what has often been described as typical American pragmatism.

Inside Story US 2012
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Their influence is disproportionate to the number of its supporters or elected officials. Its major source of power is the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has observed that because the Republican Party controls the House of Representatives, it “has much more power in Washington than it has support in the nation as a whole”. While only about one quarter of House Republicans belong to the Tea Party Congressional Caucus, the Tea Party’s ideological influence in the House Republican caucus, coupled with Republican control of the House of Representatives, have gridlocked the American political system since 2010.

The Tea Party’s direct influence can be measured by the number of Republican officials in Congress and at state and local levels who owe their election to its support. However, the movement’s indirect influence within the Republican Party reaches far beyond its officeholders. The Tea Party has reshaped the orientation of the entire Republican Party toward the hard-edged right; it has been remarkably successful in intimidating Republican officeholders, including those who may not share its extreme positions. What explains these remarkable achievements?

Their major weapon is the movement’s ability to influence Republican primaries: Tea Party-backed candidates have often been able to defeat more popular and less extreme incumbent officeholders and aspirants for Republican nominations. What explains the Tea Party’s success?

The Tea Party’s outsized influence primarily derives from the fact its supporters are well organised whereas rank and file Republicans are relatively dispersed. The fact that Tea Party supporters vote in high proportions in Republican primaries enables them to nominate candidates whose positions are at odds with those of rank and file Republicans. Similarly, Republican officeholders may support Tea Party positions less from genuine conviction than from fear of having to face off against a Tea Party-backed candidate at the next primary (the Tea Party also benefits from the lavish financial support of affluent ultra-conservatives, including the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch).

A good example of Tea Party influence occurred during the negotiations last December to devise a compromise to forestall the fiscal cliff. Speaker Boehner designed what he dubbed Plan B as a Republican alternative to the Democratic proposal to raise income taxes for Americans with annual incomes over $250,000. Plan B included a threshold for a tax increase for those with $1 million in annual income. Thus, the projected increase would affect only the richest 0.2 percent of Americans. Passage of Plan B by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives would have been purely symbolic since it would surely have been defeated by the Democratic-controlled Senate. Boehner introduced Plan B to signal Republicans’ willingness to negotiate. However, shortly before the House was scheduled to vote, Boehner withdrew the measure. The reason was that, because of a revolt by Tea Party sympathisers – who opposed raising taxes for even the wealthiest Americans – Boehner was forced to announce that Plan B lacked sufficient Republican support to ensure passage. The debacle opened the way for a compromise plan negotiated by Vice President Joseph Biden and Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader (a Republican). The measure was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate and approved in the House by most Democrats and several dozen Republicans (including Boehner). Passage of the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 briefly ended the threat of the fiscal cliff – albeit not with a bang but a whimper.

Pushed to the right

Counting the Cost
Beyond the fiscal cliff

The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, passed barely in time to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, provides meager cause for rejoicing. At best, it briefly postponed dealing with America’s fiscal and economic problems. The imminent arrival of three deadlines in the next two months will inevitably generate additional titanic battles.

First, by late February Congress must approve an increase in the $16.4 trillion debt limit. Failure to do so will produce a US default on the government’s debt and would jeopardise the financial stability of the US and possibly the entire global economy. Nonetheless, numerous Republican senators have signalled that they plan to use the possibility of default as a bargaining chip, ie, that their support for an increase in the debt limit depends on whether Congress mandates additional spending cuts. 

Second, the American Taxpayer Relief Act postponed for two months previously mandated budget sequestrations involving substantial automatic spending cuts, split equally between military and civilian programmes. Unless Congress agrees to reduce the federal budget deficit by a comparable amount, the cuts are scheduled to begin in early March.

Third, in late March, the federal government will have exhausted the funds that have been appropriated for its activities. Unless Congress appropriates additional funds, the government will be required to shut down non-essential services.

If any of these disruptions were to occur the result would be highly destructive. Whether they will be avoided depends largely on the outcome of a current battle within the Republican Party. Broadly speaking, it pits supporters of the Tea Party against those who advocate modifying the party’s ideological extremism and intransigence in order to avoid continued electoral defeat and fiscal calamity.

Republican losses in 2012 have generated some pushback against the right-wing ultras. For example, in an implicit mea culpa, Ralph Reed, founder of the ultra-conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition and former leader of the Christian Coalition, recently warned, “The Republican Party can’t stay exactly where it is and stick its head in the sand…”

However, due to Tea Party pressure, there remains strong resistance to change within the Republican Party. After a majority of House Republicans voted to support the recent fiscal agreement, including the tax increase for Americans with incomes over $400,000, the New York Times observed “…[A]cross the country, deeply conservative organisations angry about the concession on tax increases are pledging more, not fewer, primary challenges to Republicans they believe are straying too far from the party’s orthodoxy…” For example, the founder of the Florida Tea Party movement warned Republicans: “The gloves are off. We’re going to challenge a lot of the GOP going forward.”

Since the GOP’s electoral setbacks have demonstrated that its extremist stance is unpopular with the electorate, what prevents the party from moderating its positions? For an answer, recall the institutional factors reviewed above. By and large, the “ultras” represent safe Republican districts – made even safer by redistricting when, following the 2010 mid-term elections, the high point of Tea Party influence, Republican-controlled state legislatures redrew district lines to favour Republicans. The result has not only damaged Democratic prospects: Republican incumbents in safe Republican districts who stray from hard-right orthodoxy risk a 2014 primary challenge on their right.

What might overcome this logjam in the Republican Party? If the ultras continue to block change and are blamed for the resulting gridlock, the Republican Party might lose control of the House of Representatives in the 2014 mid-term elections despite the advantage redistricting has provided. Consequently, the Democratic Party would preside over unified government and, for the time being, gridlock would end.

However, crystal ball gazing is rarely fruitful. A preferable way to conclude would be to repeat the opening suggestion: Rather than extolling the excellence of their democracy, American political leaders might better devote attention to strengthening the quality of American democracy.

Mark Kesselman is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Columbia University; and Senior Editor of International Political Science Review.