Dissension and debate are key in a democracy, but not when this leads to childish obstinacy and legislative impasse


In November 2015, Congress’ approval rating hit a record low of just 11 per cent. For the last several years, our news has been plagued with stories of ‘gridlock’ within Congress, largely due to the two parties refusing to cooperate with each other. With no signs of this political stalemate subsiding, can we see a future where the legislative branch of the US Government works efficiently and effectively? Or is it broken beyond repair?

Polarization of the two parties in recent decades has led to ineffective government. The ideological divide between them has resulted in an inability to exhibit bipartisan cooperation. Partisan warfare has led to hundreds of bills being blocked with the use of the party vote, largely it seems for the sake of being obstructive. Is this what Congress has become? Voting against bills not over issues with policy but due to the sheer fact that the guy sitting on the other side of the aisle proposed it?

It’s no wonder that the Congress of 2014 was nicknamed the ‘Do-Nothing Congress’. Only 240 statutes were passed, 20 per cent of which constituted naming post offices — seemingly the only thing both parties could reach an agreement on. This meant that in total, the number of ‘substantive’ bills passed by the 113th Congress was only 108, possibly the lowest number in history. The number of representatives who have introduced fewer than five pieces of legislation also skyrocketed to 81 per cent.

Where does the blame lie?

But who is really to blame for this? Judging by the House reelection rates of 95 per cent in 2015, people clearly don’t hold their individual representatives responsible. The obvious finger-pointing goes to the Republicans. In May 2014 they blocked two bills; one to extend tax breaks for companies and another dealing with energy efficiency, despite there being broad bipartisanship support and collaboration between both parties when drafting the bills. Sarah Binder, a leading Senate expert said:

‘this is what parliamentary warfare looks like. I think the filibuster of the tax extender and energy bills — both carefully negotiated by committee leaders in a bipartisan fashion — suggests yet another deterioration of the Senate’s legislative capacity. The … polarized parties make the Senate near ungovernable. Republicans have all but ground the upper chamber’s ability to govern to a screeching halt regardless what the issue is … even obstructing bills they support and helped write’.

Obama has certainly tried to push the blame onto Congress, and especially the Republicans, but maybe he should be taking a look in the mirror. With the Republicans now controlling both the House and the Senate, is he doing the public a disfavour by still trying to push through his original agenda? Maybe the Republicans are rightfully blocking legislation because it is what the people who elected them want them to do. So perhaps Obama should be the one to seek compromise by attempting an agenda that would receive more bipartisan support? 

The Founding Fathers sought to create a Congress where legislation would be challenged and debated, and therefore hard to pass unless it was truly supported. But arguably it has already passed this point and now the process is merely exploited for partisan purposes, rendering this integral body virtually ineffective.







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