Nourafshan: Congressional politics: A potential gridlock


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While media coverage of the upcoming election has primarily focused on the significance of the presidential race between President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney, the outcomes of Congressional races will ultimately be more consequential from a governance perspective.

As we have seen through the Obama presidency, without Congressional support, it is impossible for a president to implement his policy goals. With the presidential contest neck and neck, it is not evident which, if either party, will have a down-ballot advantage, making it difficult to predict the outcome of many close congressional races. This is significant because whether the president-elect will be able to govern as promised during the campaign will largely depend on the makeup of Congress.

The successive presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama offer an interesting case study on the shifting behavior of Congress.

Under President Bush, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11, Congress acquiesced to a large number of the administrations’ agenda items. While Senate Democrats in particular became more oppositional during Bush’s second term, their use of the filibuster was still only half that of GOP senators under Obama’s first term.

In sharp contrast to the Congressional submission under Bush, Obama faced historically unprecedented obstructionism from Republicans in both the House and Senate. This raises questions about the extent to which Obama’s failure to turn around the economy as promised can be properly blamed on a dearth of executive leadership rather than the oppositional tactics of Republican representatives.

Political observers have widely noted the unprecedentedly dogmatic opposition Republicans have mounted against virtually all agenda items of the Obama administration. Following the 2010 midterm election in which the Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives, gridlock reached its highest level in history, and Congressional popularity fell below 10 percent, the lowest level in history. In this hyper-partisan environment, many Republicans appeared to abandon longstanding policy positions and principles seemingly for the sake of contrariness.

The behavior of Congressional Republicans has been particularly dangerous on economic issues: the U.S. credit downgrade, for example, was solely based on the GOP-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis. And while this behavior is unquestionably dangerous to the interests of the United States, it is interesting to consider whether this behavior will be viewed as a historical aberration or whether this type of partisan obstruction will become the new normal.

Much of this problem stems from increasing ideological rigidity among political parties; according to the Brookings Institute, the parties are at their most ideologically extreme since post-Civil War Reconstruction. Moreover, representatives have moved so far from one another on the ideological spectrum that the most liberal Republican senator is no longer less conservative than the most conservative Senate Democrat; what this means is that there is no overlap or common ground between the parties, further disincentivizing bipartisan compromise.

The increasingly adversarial political paradigm unquestionably affects governmental efficiency, and such implacable opposition likely also has the effect of alienating Americans who see the parties as too extreme and dysfunctional to put any trust in. America already boasts a low voter turnout rate, and it is hard to imagine that the current gridlock and historic hyper-partisanship does anything but further decrease political enthusiasm.

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