The Myth of Gridlock

There is more continuity in American politics than meets the eye.

According to the conventional wisdom the American democracy is in trouble because the two parties—each with a more or less equal number of followers—cannot agree on what must be done. The consensus verdict on Washington is that it is badly gridlocked. Some find it so debilitating that they call for a government by technocrats. For instance, Peter Orszag, the former budget director, argues that “we need to minimize the harm from legislative inertia by relying more on automatic policies and depoliticized commissions. . . . We need to counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a bit less democratic.” Thomas Friedman even toyed with theidea that we should adopt the Chinese authoritarian model because they are able to make decisions without undue delay.

All of these claims of gridlock are based on a confusion between an object that is not moving because those who own it cannot agree on where to go—and an object that does not budge because one of the owners, the more powerful one, does not want it to move. Take one piece of evidence used by those who bemoan the gridlock. The current Congress has enacted less than half as many bills as the average Congress since 1990 and passed about a quarter as many on average since 1947. This is not evidence of gridlock between the two parties but instead a victory for those who hold that the government that governs least governs best.

In practically all matters concerning homeland security, defense and foreign policy, conservative Republicans and many Democrats have supported the president over the last four years. With the notable exception of the new START treaty with Russia, President Obama on all these fronts largely followed the policies of George W. Bush (especially those of his second term). President Obama extended the Patriot Act, drastically increased the use of drone strikes against terrorists overseas, arranged an unprecedented number of deportations of illegal immigrants and extended the surveillance of American citizens. President Obama is often credited or blamed for preferring a multilateral foreign policy. However, the number of nations that participated in Bush’s Iraq mission—with twenty-nine allies each contributing over one hundred troops—is similar to the number that participated in Afghanistan, where thirty-three allies have deployed over one hundred troops. The same multilateral sanctions policy against Iran that worked poorly during the Bush era did not do much better during the Obama era.

Certainly there are some differences between the last two administrations. For instance, the campaign in Libya was carried out much differently than the Iraq War. However, when all is said and done, there was much more continuity than difference in their assertive foreign policies and no evidence of gridlock.

Congress over the last four years has blocked a lot of liberal initiatives, yet it did not fail to enact a whole slew of conservative measures. Most prominent among these was a huge tax cut for all Americans, including the most affluent, passed in 2010. Congress increased the value of the exemption from the estate tax to $5 million for 2011 and 2012. It kept Guantanamo Bay open and prevented terrorists from being tried in American civilian courts. The debate over raising the debt ceiling was resolved by cutting $38.6 billion per year from nondefense discretionary programs favored by liberals such as the EPA, low-income housing assistance and re-employment training. Congress passed new free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, favored by business interests and opposed by labor unions.

What about the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which is considered a great liberal victory? In fact, the idea of introducing an individual mandate was first devised in the 1990s by the Heritage Foundation as the conservative alternative to what appeared to be an impending liberal health-care program. It was later implemented in Massachusetts under Governor Mitt Romney. The liberal option of a single-payer system was not even considered during the recent health-care hearings. In short, the ACA has conservative teeth marks all over it, although over the next ten years it will add some thirty million to the insurance rolls. True, it took a year to cobble the bill together, but for a bill that affects the life of every American and its most vital parts, this is not a long time. It does not bespeak of gridlock.

Perhaps the greatest evidence of the strength of the conservative agenda is that more and more Democrats are willing to accept and vote for deregulation and cuts to entitlements.