Why Can’t Congress Get More Done?

Thursday, July 30, 1998

The 103d Congress lasted from 1993 to 1994. Democrats held a majority in both the House and the Senate—and a Democrat sat in the White House. Yet as the 103d Congress ground to a close, political columnists, television commentators, senators and representatives, as well as the president, bemoaned the lack of progress on health care, campaign finance reform, and environmental legislation. Newspaper headlines proclaimed “The Worst Congress in Over Fifty Years” and “Gridlock Dominates.” By early October 1994 both parties were pointing fingers, trying to interpret the inaction in ways that forwarded their own electoral purposes. Democrats, including the president, blamed Republicans for the gridlock. Republicans, sensing victory in the 1994 elections, tried to make President Clinton the issue and thus the election a referendum on his performance. Congress as an institution was held in low esteem. In what seemed a judgment on the 103d Congress, the 1994 elections brought in the first Republican Congress in forty years.

What happened next? At first it appeared that government inaction had come to an end. The newly elected Republican majority in Congress pushed through some of the reforms defined by their Contract with America—ending unfunded mandates, enacting a line-item veto, and, in the House, passing a balanced budget amendment. By April, Speaker Newt Gingrich was riding high in the opinion polls, and Americans saw Republicans as the party of action, fully capable of balancing the budget. Yet within seven months all that had changed. Congress’s approval rating had shrunk to about 20 percent; Speaker Gingrich’s approval rating had fallen to 30 percent; President Clinton’s popularity was over 50 percent for the first time in more than a year; and the government was operating on a continuing resolution (after a seven-day shutdown) while the president and the Republican Congress negotiated a new budget deal that was far to the left of the one originally passed by Congress.

The environmentalist lobby is strongest in the West, the National Rifle Association in the South and West, the National Organization for Women in the North. Thus the influence of interest groups varies from region to region.

What accounts for the “failure” of unified, one-party government in the 103d Congress to break gridlock? Why, given a mandate in the 104th Congress, couldn’t the Republicans have their way? Permit us to offer four answers.

In the United States, party positions on issues vary across the country. The Democratic Party in Texas, Montana, and Idaho will differ from the Democratic Party in New York and Illinois on gun control. Likewise there will be differences among local and state parties across all fifty states and 435 congressional districts on civil rights, environmentalism, tax policy, foreign policy, and any number of other issues. The congressional Democratic and Republican Parties (those members actually in Congress) will therefore be characterized by both inter- and intraparty differences. Some Demo-crats will be conservatives on tax policy, gun control, and environmental issues, whereas some Republicans will be liberal on the same set of issues. In general, Republicans are more conservative than Democrats across a broad set of issues. But there is enough variation in intraparty preferences to prohibit strict party control of policy. Just because Democrats control the House and the Senate does not guarantee that a Democratic president will get his way in Congress. Members of Congress who please their constituencies get reelected, even though they may vote against their party.

One reason that members of the same party vary on policy is that the influence of interest groups varies from district to district and region to region. Environmentalists are more numerous in the West than in the Midwest and the East. The National Rifle Association is stronger in the South and the West than elsewhere. The National Organization for Women has more members in the North than in the South. The National Farmers Union has more members in the Dakotas and Minnesota than the American Farm Bureau Federation, which is stronger, in contrast, in Illinois and Iowa. Thus across districts, states, and regions interests are sorted differently, and the influence of interest groups varies accordingly.

The views of the voters themselves likewise sort out in a variety of ways. For example, about 70 percent of Californians across both parties are pro-choice. California Republicans such as Governor Pete Wilson are pro-choice even though the national Republican Party’s official position is pro-life. Thus one simply cannot use party strength in Congress to predict abortion policy. When Ronald Reagan was president (and pro-life) and the Senate was Republican, pro-life supporters could not pass a bill or an amendment repealing the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.

It is hard to determine whether the voters are inherently unrealistic or whether their lack of realism has been induced.

In most votes, a simple majority—50 percent plus one—is all that is required to win a vote in the House and Senate. There are two vital exceptions. The first is the two-thirds vote required to override the president’s veto. The second is Senate Rule Twenty-two. The rule stipulates that a filibuster in the Senate can be ended not by a simple majority vote of fifty-one senators but only by a supermajority vote of sixty.

These rules enable members of the House and Senate who are far from the middle ground on policy to exert considerable influence. Even though a majority in the House and Senate may choose to override a presidential veto, for instance, the pivotal members—the 67th vote in the Senate and the 288th vote in the House—can nevertheless preserve the status quo. Members of minority factions in the Senate can likewise preserve the status quo by making use of the Senate filibuster.

The varying strength of interest groups, regional differences in voters’ views, the need to build congressional supermajorities—all these play a role in government inaction. But perhaps the most fundamental cause is just this: The issues are hard, and neither the people nor their representatives know how to solve them.

Consider just one issue: entitlement programs. Everyone agrees that the United States cannot continue its entitlement programs at their present levels without (1) increasing taxes, (2) decreasing benefits, or (3) increasing the deficit and thus the burden on future generations. But the issue is not a multiple-choice test. Some favor increasing taxes; others favor decreasing expenditures; many favor a mixed strategy. Complex problems generate complex solutions, and both are grounded in the complex and varied preferences underlying policy choices.

After twenty years of being told that budget problems can be solved without cutting entitlements or raising taxes, the public may have begun to believe it.

There is not only a lack of consensus in the Congress itself but among the public. “The budget should be balanced while taxes are cut and expenditures increased” is a classic example of the American public’s contradictory views on policy.

It is hard to determine whether voters are inherently unrealistic or whether their lack of realism has been induced. Consider the budget problem. On the one hand, the public (according to various surveys) believes that we can reduce taxes, increase expenditures, and have a balanced budget all at the same time. One view to draw from such results is that the public is uninformed, irrational, or unrealistic.

On the other hand, what should we expect from a public that has for decades been told that solving the budget problem will be painless? From Jimmy Carter’s energy crises as “the moral equivalent of war” to Walter Mondale’s pledge to raise taxes to George Bush’s breaking his pledge of “no new taxes,” politicians who admitted that pain was involved in problem solving have not fared well at the polls. Politicians from LBJ (with his Great Society) to Ronald Reagan (with his Morning in America) who focused on the positive have done much better. After twenty years of being told that budget problems can be solved without cutting middle-class entitlements or raising middle-class taxes, the public may well have begun to believe it.

Yet making public policy differs from talking about it in an election. President Clinton and the Democratic platform may boast about how they will protect Medicare from the Republican Congress, but after his reelection President Clinton had to propose cuts in Medicare’s projected growth to avoid major fiscal problems. In the policy world, presidents must propose how they are going to reduce the deficit, enhance health care coverage, deal with Saddam Hussein and other foreign entanglements, and improve educational opportunities for American children. Such proposals entail trade-offs. They have real consequences. Hard choices are just that—hard—and they make it difficult for the Congress and the president to shift policy. In short, the status quo is hard to change for legitimate reasons.