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Is Washington Broken?

It's gridlock in the nation's capital. Not on the streets, but in congress. Is this any way to run a government?

By Patricia Smith


Lee Storrow, a junior at the University of North Carolina, had high hopes after the 2008 election: President Obama had won a decisive victory and there were Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.

"It's been pretty discouraging to see how the big reform bills we were hoping to get through—like health care and climate change—have been just blockaded," Storrow says.

He's not alone in his frustration. A recent poll found that 75 percent of Americans disapprove of how Congress is doing.

Gridlock has overtaken Washington these days, with Democrats and Republicans in Congress seemingly incapable of working with each other or with the President. A number of major legislative issues—from health care and climate change to Wall Street reform—have stalled in Congress, or taken much longer than anyone expected to get through.

At the same time the tone of debate in the Capitol seems to be getting more hostile, making compromise and progress on many issues even less likely.

It's all left Americans feeling that Washington is broken, and that no one seems to know how to fix it, at a time when there's broad agreement that the nation faces enormous long-term challenges. The federal deficit has soared above $1.5 trillion this year, and the costs of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are growing so fast that they threaten to bankrupt the Treasury. Tackling problems of this magnitude will require difficult compromises, and painful choices, on all sides.

"I used to think it would take a global financial crisis to get both parties to the table, but we just had one," says William Hoagland, a former adviser to Senate Republicans. "These days I wonder if this country is even governable."

Many see no way out, at least in the near future. George W. Bush limped to the end of his presidency under fierce assault from Democrats, defeated in his efforts to overhaul the Social Security system and immigration policy. A year and a half later, President Obama is dealing with re-energized Republicans, not to mention unhappy Democrats—some who think he's too liberal and others who think he's too conservative—and an angry public that's taking out its frustrations on incumbents in both parties. Democrats could face significant losses in the November midterm elections, and possibly lose control of one or both houses of Congress, which could slow down Washington even more.

Filibusters: Talk, and More Talk

"I've never been as pessimistic as I am right now," says Robert Reischauer, former director of the Congressional Budget Office. "I don't see how we get out of this."

A key reason for the gridlock, experts say, is the increased use of filibusters in the Senate. A filibuster lets a Senator or group of Senators delay or block a vote by speaking indefinitely—to tie up the Senate so that no other business can get done.

Senate rules require not just a majority of 51 votes, but a supermajority of 60 votes to end debate on legislation so that a vote can be taken or the Senate can move on to other business.

During the 1960s, the filibuster was used an average of seven times a year, and usually only on the most critical, game-changing legislation, like civil rights bills; in 2009, it was used 137 times, says Darrell West of the Brookings Institution.

One reason there are so many more filibusters today is that Senators don't actually have to keep talking, the way Jimmy Stewart did in the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or, in the real Congress, the way Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina did in his record-breaking, 24-hour, 18-minute filibuster of a civil rights bill in 1957. Under today's rules, a Senator just needs to threaten to filibuster, and it has the same effect.

"It's put Congress in a situation where they can't do anything," West says. "They literally are unable to address virtually any problem. We've moved from majority-rule to supermajority-rule."

Others say that the system is working as it should—slowly and cautiously. They argue that the checks and balances built into the Constitution were meant to set a high bar for federal action. The Senate, in particular, was designed to make it hard to pass legislation. As James Madison noted in the Federalist Papers, it was meant to be an "additional impediment" against "improper acts of legislation."

"Our system is designed for gridlock," says Thomas Cronin, a political scientist at Colorado College. "The country is anti-statist. We love our country, but we've never liked government."

Some believe a return to divided government after midterm elections this November might actually make it easier to get legislation passed. Controlling at least one chamber of Congress would give Republicans a greater stake in compromising with a Democratic President. Some of the most significant recent legislative accomplishments were achieved when one party controlled the White House and the other controlled Congress.

But the growing influence of each party's ideological base—conservatives for Republicans and liberals for Democrats—limits the ability of congressional leaders to compromise even when they want to. Some Republicans today see opposition, rather than cooperation, as the way to achieve their policy goals and to win in November.

Congress, in fact, has managed to get a few critical things done in the past year. It passed a $787 billion economic stimulus package and in March it passed a bill to spur job creation.

But the inaction on major initiatives is hard to ignore. After more than a year of debate, health-care legislation sputtered after the January election of Republican Scott Brown to Ted Kennedy's Senate seat suddenly robbed the Democrats of their 60-vote supermajority. The House passed a climate-change bill creating a cap-and-trade system, but it remains stalled in the Senate. A year and a half after a crippling financial crisis, lawmakers have been unable to agree on changes in how Wall Street is regulated in order to lower the risk of future crises. And Congress seems to have given up altogether on trying to fix an immigration system that almost everyone agrees is broken.

It wasn't always like this. In fact, for two decades after World War II, Washington functioned pretty effectively. Republicans and Democrats joined forces to enact the Marshall Plan (a massive aid project designed to rebuild Western Europe after the war), establish the federal interstate highway system, pass the Civil Rights Act, and create Medicare (a government-run health-insurance program for those over 65).

Less Socializing

One factor that seemed to make Washington work more smoothly was that until recently, there was more social interaction among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, partly because more of them had their families living in Washington.

Today, the demands of fund-raising, the ease of traveling back and forth to their districts, and spouses who are less willing to give up careers and lifestyles to move to Washington lead many to leave the Capitol immediately after floor votes and head home on weekends.

"When I was a boy, members of Congress from both parties, along with their families, would routinely visit our home for dinner or the holidays," Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, whose father was a Senator from 1963 to 1981, wrote recently in a Times op-ed. "This type of social interaction hardly ever happens today and we are the poorer for it. It is much harder to demonize someone when you know his family or have visited his home."

Bayh is one of several moderate lawmakers from both parties who have recently announced they won't be running for re-election in November. Veteran Democratic Senators Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota have choosen to retire. So has Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. An unusually high number of Congressmen have also chosen not to run again.

And several people who were considered likely candidates have decided not to run. Among them is Beau Biden, the popular Attorney General of Delaware and the son of Vice President Joe Biden, who was thought to have a strong shot at taking over his father's old Senate seat.

"There is this sort of purging in both parties,'' former Senator William Cohen of Maine told the Associated Press. "They insist on moving to the left or moving to the right, and I think you're seeing over the years the moderates have disappeared and continue to disappear."

It becomes a vicious cycle: As moderates leave Congress, the lawmakers who replaced them tend to be on the fringes of their parties and less inclined to work with those across the aisle. The hostile atmosphere prompts even more moderates to resign.

Further exacerbating the problem is the impact of redistricting. Every 10 years, states redraw their congressional districts based on the latest Census, which is being conducted right now. In recent years, to help make re-election easier for incumbents, many states have redrawn districts to make them more solidly Democratic or Republican. One result is that candidates no longer have to appeal to as broad a spectrum of voters, and those who get elected tend to be more liberal or conservative.

"Redistricting has created a more polarized Congress, because you have more members from the extremes," says West.

Anyone Want a Senate Seat?

Not so long ago, Senate seats were among the most sought-after positions in the nation. They meant power, prestige, and the possibility of having an impact on public affairs.

Now, many believe the $174,000 salary just isn't worth being screamed at during town hall meetings in their districts, spending evenings away from their families to attend fundraisers, and being vilified 24/7 on the Internet, cable news channels, and talk radio. And the more polarized Congress becomes, the less its members can accomplish.

Politicians may believe compromise isn't in their best interests, but polls indicate that the public prefers compromise to inaction. Public disapproval of Congress is at a historic high, and fewer than 1 in 10 Americans say members of Congress deserve re-election.

"Gridlock is not popular," says Andy Kohut of the Pew Research Center. "People are disappointed." Despite all the partisan bickering and gridlock in Congress, 19-year-old Brendan Campbell, a sophomore at the University of Michigan, sees reasons to be optimistic.

"This moment in history could prove to be a defining one," says Campbell, "if it spurs us to change the way the Senate operates and make it more of a democratic institution."


(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, April 19, 2010)