The lack of enthusiasm facing the 113th Congress and the second Obama administration has been noted across all news outlets – although the President won a second term, the margin of victory was smaller and some “fired up” about his first term in office have lost their zeal as economic woes continue to grip the nation. Even before November 6, pundits lamented the troubles facing the winner of the election.
After the 2010 midterm elections, Congress experienced paralyzing gridlock after the Republican Party took control of the House of Representatives and the election of Tea Party hard-liners pushed the GOP agenda to the far right. The first major example of this was the debt-ceiling crisis of summer 2011, a very loud, public and drawn-out display of the clashing of egos in both the Senate and House. Congress’ inability to reach a compromise about the nation’s debt cost the United States its AAA rating from Standard & Poor’s and consequently the world view of the U.S. as a stalwart economic powerhouse.
Unfortunately, a very similar test is about to befall the 112th and 113th Congresses. The impending “fiscal cliff”, a term referring to the beginning of 2013, when expiration of the Bush tax cuts and Budget Control Act of 2011 (passed as compromise to the debt-ceiling crisis) take effect, resulting in tax increases and spending cuts which could impact the nation’s economic recovery efforts.
Sarah Binder wrote on the dynamics of legislative gridlock, making several points applicable to the recent struggles in Congress. One hypothesis she asserts is divided government increases policy gridlock, while unified government decreases it. Though this may seem to be obvious, she explains that elections do more than divide the major branches of government – each election cycle distributes policy preferences and the ideological center in different ways. She also points out legislators are more likely to disagree, particularly when there are incentives to distinguish records and positions.
The 112th Congress has perfect examples of members who had powerful incentives to “distinguish records”, as Binder discusses – Tea Partiers who ran on a platform of no compromise to the left agenda. In the Senate, a chamber designed to slow the legislative process and to avoid tyranny of the majority, things have come to a grinding halt. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has pledged to fight to “diminish the power of Republicans to obstruct legislation” via changing the Senate rules, while Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell has blamed Democratic Party behavior on the Senate’s “dysfunction” and vowed to fight any rule change tooth and nail. Though it seems obvious, Binder points out the greater the threat of filibuster and the greater the policy distance between the House & Senate, the greater increase of gridlock. The Senate has found ways to continue session with a filibuster without disruption, but legislation is still mired in the process for weeks until it is tabled or killed.
While exchanges like this make the future seem bleak, there does seem to be some evidence of movement to the ideological center in the shadow of the looming fiscal cliff. The Washington Post reported that although there were widely varying opinions on how to execute this plan, “For the first time in decades, bipartisan consensus has emerged in Washington to raise taxes.” Even conservative pillars such as South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham has publically agreed to break Grover Norquist’s no-tax pledge if Democrats are willing to help pass spending reform on programs such as Medicare and Social Security. The pursuit of this middle ground seems promising, but the country will hold its breath as the Obama administration and Congress hammer out a plan that must be full of compromises.