The Myth of American Gridlock
Congress is actually getting things done, even as polarization seems to get worse.
For the chattering classes—and even more so for those Americans less closely attuned to politics—the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has seemed like a mere blip on the political radar, quickly swallowed up by the explosive story of the FBI “raid” on Mar-a-Lago. On one hand, this is to be expected, given the high stakes and potential fallout of the raid for 2024. But it also exemplifies a dynamic that I think has become increasingly prevalent in American political culture: a steady tempo of legislative productivity that is almost totally obscured by our deepening spiral of polarization.
During the Obama and Trump administrations, political polarization seemed to be the clear driver of legislative gridlock. Both presidents managed to pass one major bill, then quickly saw their agendas stall in the face of a bitterly divided Congress. In 2020, then, it would have been reasonable to assume that President Biden would have faced the same, or worse, fate.
Consider the environment he and the Democrats faced at the start of 2021: a razor-thin margin in the House and literally no margin in the Senate. Consider also the fact that the two most prominent moderate Democratic senators are also those who seem to relish (or at least benefit politically from) swimming against the current of the Democratic Party. But in terms of achieving the goals that Democrats and liberals say they want, the “Biden era” has actually been remarkably successful.
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2021 and 2022 each saw the passage of a large spending bill, with the American Rescue Plan (Biden’s “Covid stimulus” bill) acting as the last infusion of federal support for an economy struggling to recover from the pandemic—not least the bailing out of struggling urban school districts and transportation systems. Perhaps it overshot the mark (as Larry Summers warned), but the ARP was a nearly two trillion dollar bill—hardly a legislative failure from the Democrats’ perspective.
The recently passed IRA is much smaller, less than a fifth of the size of the ARP, and it represents a significant climbdown from the extravagant demands made by the more progressive wing of the party. But contrary to the complaints of many pundits that Democrats were self-sabotaging because of their inability to prioritize, the party was quite able to do so by the end of negotiations, focusing on the popular goals of healthcare spending, climate infrastructure, and deficit reduction.
Both the IRA and the ARP, of course, were passed through reconciliation, a parliamentary loophole that allows yearly spending bills to bypass the filibuster, on a party-line vote. But there have also been bipartisan successes. The infrastructure bill was widely popular, peeling off a significant number of Republican votes and providing 550 billion dollars in new spending for roads, railways, bridges, public transit, broadband, and power infrastructure.. The Chips and Science Act, providing tens of billions of dollars for domestic semiconductor manufacturing and research, was passed with relatively little fanfare earlier this month. It was also shepherded through Congress with support from both parties, including none other than Mitch McConnell. And the gun control bill passed in the wake of the Uvalde shootings—while the definition of incrementalism—represented the first legislative movement on the issue in over a decade.
To sum up, in two years Biden and the Democrats have managed to spend two trillion dollars in Covid stimulus, begin to build a high-tech industrial strategy based around national security considerations, pass needed maintenance and upgrades for infrastructure, and make the most significant investment in green energy in American history. It may not be the Great Society, but it’s certainly not gridlock.
As Tyler Cowen likes to say, the era of legislative polarization may actually be over. With less-than-stellar political skills, a tiny Congressional majority, and consistently low favorability ratings, Biden has managed to preside over a productive legislative agenda.
Now, it would be naive to insist that voters reward him for these wins (personally, I’m hardly a fan of much of the Democratic agenda). The average American cares much more about inflation eating into their budget than the merits of “reshoring” semiconductor manufacturing. But as a candidate, much of Biden’s pitch was based around the promise to restore some sort of regular order to government, that Congress and the country might start to claw its way out of the frustration, learned helplessness, and constant partisan infighting of the 2010s.
From the narrow perspective of legislation, he has more than accomplished this goal. But politics is about much more than passing laws. On paper, it might seem like partisanship is cooling off. But a passing glance at political rhetoric, the stated attitudes of members of both parties, and our ongoing spiral of delegitimization and polarization quickly proves that claim false. The culture war continues its steady march.
American political culture has, to many, felt poisoned, broken, ever since Trump’s victory in 2016—really since the polarization and gridlock of Obama’s second term. Biden’s first term is solid evidence that simple legislative success might not be able to fix that. It raises the question then, of what, exactly, we are asking out of politics.
When we, exhausted by partisanship and culture war, say we want a “return to normalcy,” what do we really mean? Do we want a government that makes fairly moderate reforms, basically reflecting the political balance of a closely divided government and nation? You could argue that for the last two years, that is precisely what we’ve had.
But clearly, a return to political activity and movement after years of frustrating gridlock is not going to restore political health. The last two years also saw a well-documented decline in the ability of either side to recognize the basic legitimacy of the other in politics. The GOP’s response to the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago is more than adequate proof of that.
I wonder, then, if our near-to-medium term political future might be something like the phenomenon of “secret Congress”—the tongue-in-cheek term for bills passed with little fanfare as partisans clash over more media-friendly issues—on steroids. The Mar-a-Lago raid totally eclipsing the IRA's passage is just one example. An even more fitting one might be the fact that as Trump still loudly pushes the claim that the 2020 election was stolen, Congress is moving closer to reforming the Electoral Vote Count Act, closing off the path Trump attempted to take on January 6th.
It’s early yet, but the evidence indicates that Congress may be regaining some of its basic competence, relearning the habits of legislative dealmaking. If the manners and rhetoric of public life continue to deteriorate, we might need to reconsider what the ostensible goals of politics—legislation and policy—can and cannot provide for us as citizens.
Perhaps, what we wanted out of politics all along was something no law can provide: a sense of finality, that the problems that plague us will finally be dealt with in some undefined way. In many ways, this is an anti-political stance, one that is profoundly impatient with and intolerant of setbacks, compromise, and futility—all of which are necessary in a functioning democracy.
I think this mindset is also widespread, even among those immersed in the legislative process. Shortly after winning the presidency, Joe Biden met with a group of historians who assured him he had the opportunity, even the mandate, to transform the country with an FDR-style presidency. But historians aren’t mathematicians, and it seems like none actually counted the number of Democratic votes Biden had in Congress. The New Deal was never on the table.
That juxtaposition, contained within one individual, might be the most telling of all: even as Biden has collected a number of moderate victories, his sights were set far higher, ludicrously out of sync with political realities. Transformation was never even a possibility. But incremental progress and reform certainly is within reach of even a moderately talented president and a somewhat unified party. Clearly, for those Americans most concerned with politics, the contrast between sky-high expectations and the “slow boring of hard boards” is profoundly frustrating.
I’m not certain whether this dynamic is encouraging or discouraging. One could plausibly see a future where our democratic values continue to deteriorate, impervious to any renewed capacity on the part of our government. But on the other hand, we could simply be going through a needed adjustment, a sort of painful adaptation. America is moving further away from the postwar era of consensus, reverting to the historical norm of large, diverse democracies being, well, large and diverse. Our political institutions might just be adjusting and learning how to function in the face of a bitterly divided population.
But in either case, I’m increasingly convinced that our national sense of political frustration will grow more and more out of step with our legislative reality. And that makes me wonder whether what we think is wrong with our political culture has much to do with politics at all.
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