Congress Isn't Gridlocked—It's Just Totally Irresponsible

Congress has effectively stopped work on serious legislation until after the election.


Despite looming deadlines related to budget sequestration and decade-old "temporary" tax rates that expire at year's end, massive entitlement crises, and much more, Congress has effectively stopped work on serious legislation until at least some time after November's election.

Many observers and participants—including the entire GOP and Democratic leadership—are quick to cry gridlock and to blame inaction on some new awful hyper-partisan or ideological era.

But there isn't gridlock, which usually results from Democrats and Republicans sharing power and clashing over alternative positions. Gridlock slows things down—almost always a good thing—but it doesn't stop serious legislation from happening. Welfare reform, balanced budgets, defense cuts, and capital-gains tax rate cuts in the 1990s were all the product of gridlock that slowly gave way to consensus.

And today's Congress is more than happy to pass legislation when it suits members' interests. In just the past few months, for instance, the ostensibly gridlocked Congress reauthorized the Export-Import Bank program that gives money to foreign companies to buy U.S. goods; extended sharply reduced rates for government-subsidized student loans; re-upped the Essential Air Service program that subsidizes airline service to rural communities; and voted against ending the 1705 loan-guarantee program that gave rise to green-tech boondoggles such as Solyndra and Abound. None of these were party-line votes—all enjoyed hearty support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Another instance of budding bipartisanship is the pork-laden farm bill that extends sugar subsidies, maintains crop subsidies, and creates a "shallow-loss program" that effectively guarantees incomes for farmers at a time when that sector is doing historically well. The bill passed the Senate with 16 GOP votes. Though the House version of the bill is still being worked out, no one doubts it will not only pass, but largely resemble the Senate version.

What we're actually witnessing—and have been for years now—is not gridlock, but the abdication of responsibility by Congress and the president for performing the most basic responsibilities of government. Despite the fiscal crisis that Washington knows will occur if it fails to deal with unsustainable spending and debt, it hasn't managed to produce a federal budget in more than three years.

To their credit, House Republicans have drafted, voted on, and passed a budget, but they are busy now trying to worm their way out of the very spending cuts—the sequestration deal—they insisted on as a condition for raising the debt limit last summer.

One of the most egregious failures of the president's budget was that it, as in his previous budgets, offered no serious plan to stabilize the largest entitlement programs. Instead, the president and congressional Democrats lambasted Republicans for actually addressing the problem in their budget.

The plain fact is that neither party is working honestly to tackle the nation's fiscal issues. Why stick your neck out when it's easier to just blame the other side? Given the lackluster economy, the GOP's smartest option might well be to do nothing but blame the president for the slowest economic recovery since the Great Depression. Republicans studiously avoid implicating themselves and former President George W. Bush, who pushed the Troubled Asset Relief Program through in 2008 and then diverted TARP funds to bail out General Motors and Chrysler.

Taking a page from Harry Truman's 1948 reelection campaign, President Obama and congressional Democrats are blaming the "obstructionist" Republicans for the poor economy because they failed to enact the president's policies.

Regardless of how the elections shake out, the parties' punting on serious attempts at governing has set the stage for the most jam-packed and manic lame-duck session of Congress since 2010, when legislators signed off on a two-year extension of Bush's tax rates, adopted a new START nuclear arms treaty and voted to end "Don't ask, don't tell" in the military.

Congress and the president are once again acting like errant school children who are waiting until the end of the semester to finish their work. Of course, it is ridiculous to imagine this post-election glut of legislation will produce any meaningful spending reform, coherent tax policy or a wise plan to implement the sequestration cuts.

Simply put, this is no way to run a country. The problem is not gridlock or ideological fervor. The problem is an increasingly irresponsible government that has for far too long been far too easily let off the hook. Whichever party emerges victorious in November, and whatever happens in the lame-duck session, this much is certain: Unless taxpayers begin demanding their president and Congress act responsibly, and do the actual work they were elected to do,"gridlock" will be the least of our problems.

This article originally appeared in The Hill.


NEXT: Mitt Romney to Pick Paul Ryan?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. The plain fact is that neither party is working honestly to tackle the nation’s fiscal issues.

    Why is it whenever I point this out I get called a Republican?

    1. This ‘concern’ of yours for mere budget matters is a distraction from the real issues of the day, like health care for the poor, women’s birth control rights, social justice for minorities, and punishing the rich. The fact that you even bring it up shows your true colors.

      1. You forgot about Romney’s tax returns and Obama’s birth certificate.

        1. And Chick-fil-A

          1. And you forgot high school bullies, white boy!

    2. Democrats are like the cool friend-turned roommate that makes you feel like Mr. Weatherbee or Daddy Warbucks for asking things like: let’s not leave the fridge door open overnight, let’s not have the central air at 60 in the summer and 90 in the winter, let’s not pretend that the mold-laden food in the fridge and pantry is OK and get mad when someone tries to get rid of it, and could we pretend that the bills and rent happen at the same time each month and not be surprised and offended when I merely bring it up. If you don’t pretend that consequences don’t exist and fairies solve all of your problems, you’re “the man”

    3. Why is it whenever I point this out I get called a Republican?

      Because you’re talking to Democrats. Say the same thing to Republican and you’ll be called a Democrat. That’s how tribalism works.

  2. Sounds pretty far right to me. Scary even. Are you in a militia?

  3. Nick, Veronique,

    You just observed yourself that congress acts irresponsibly in a year that just happens to be right before a major election. Why would they do that? Could it be those very same taxpayers that are supposed to start “demanding their President and Congress act responsibly”? This is a slightly higher level of discourse than what presidents and congressional leaders engage in during an election year, but you’re still making circular arguments like those politicians are. Angry but engaged voters are needed to bring the government under control, but what can you do about the voters we have?

  4. What we’re actually witnessing?and have been for years now?is not gridlock, but the abdication of responsibility by Congress and the president for performing the most basic responsibilities of government.

    Which is worse, being subjects of Congress and the President or of czars and regulators?

    1. The Czars and regulators. Congress critters do occasionally lose their jobs and will sometimes do the right thing for the wrong reasons. The Czars and regulators never lose their jobs and never do the right thing.

      1. The Czars and regulators never lose their jobs and never do the right thing.

        Oh come on!

        That’s a scurrilous lie that is easily falsified:

        Vince Foster blew his brains out.

        See? They occasionally do the right thing! In addition, he didn’t have a job after he ate that bullet, did he?

        1. Hey man, nice shot

        2. pretty sure he was killed by one of Clinton’s death squads

          1. Nah. Donna Shalala killed him. Jealous that Hillary was only half butch.

            That is my early nineties conspiracy theory and I’m sticking to it.

    2. Well, we’ve clearly seen the abdication of responsibility by Congress. Why stick their neck out when the media focuses reponsibility for everthing that happens or doesn’t happen on the president. Sure they may generically fault Congress for gridlock, but not specific congressman. When they do blame specific congressman for anything it’s usually for doing something their constituents overwhealmingly support so it’s no skin off their backs and is often beneficial. With the primary media focus on the white house, Congress is free to pilfer at will to provide billions dollar kickbacks to thousand dollar contributers and enrich their family and friends with no consequences at all. Attempting to solves issues would only bring focus on them that may cost them reelection. As long as the media gives them a free ride for their negligence, their not going to step up to the plate. The presidents pick their battles. After W’s failed attempt at SS reform his focus was on the war and was willing to let congress run roughshop as long as he was allowed his war. Obama sees basic government responsibility through the lens of the welfare state (ie Obamacare). Healthcare was a huge media issue which he took full advantage of. He did address what he see’s as a basic responsibility of government at substantial political cost regardless of how messed up his ideology is.

  5. Time to change the paradigm.

    Our Constitution was written such that government is held accountable to its citizenry through elections. Fear of retribution at the polls is what’s supposed to keep legislators doing the correct things. So what keeps them accountable when the citizenry is itself irresponsible (i.e., I will vote for the guy who gives me the most free shit.)?

    Getting reelected, and maintaining their unquenchable lust for power, is what motivates politicians. They will NEVER make the hard call if it means they lose their job. Even if it is a matter that will eventually destroy our way of life (I give you the debt/unfunded liabilities.) The paradigm needs to change to incentivize proper behavior. I propose taking the capability of a legislator becoming a “career” politician off the table, thus changing their motivation.


    1. I propose a constitutional amendment limiting congressmen to a single term. We can debate how long that term should be, but I would go 8 years for a senator and 4 years for a representative. And here is the critical part…there would need to be intervening votes of confidence throughout the term (I propose off cycle primaries) where the congressman runs only against his record. If 2/3 of the voters give him the thumbs down, he’s removed early. This keeps him accountable to the constituency.

      Knowing he cannot remain on the gravy train indefinitely anyway will incentivize him to make those hard calls rather than pander. This plan has the added benefit of reducing the influence of special interests, as, if you don’t need money to get reelected there is no temptation to sell your vote.

      1. I love the idea of term limits, but I don’t think many citizens vote based on “who gives them free shit”. For one, both major parties are all for giving away “free” shit.

        Instead I think it’s mainly about tribalism. Team red vs. Team blue. Each team is able to maintain its strongholds primarily because of not term limits and gerrymandering. So, in additions to applying term limits, I think we need to put an end to gerrymandering. Make it so all district lines must conform to lines of latitude, lines of longitude or state borders.

        1. No need for unconstitutional term limits. Just enforce the Constitution as it is written – “no State shall make any Thing but gold and silver coin legal tender in payment of debts”, and “Congress shall have the authority to coin money and regulate the value thereof”. That puts the Federal Reserve out of business and stops defecit spending. Then, re-discover the Common Law, and the War on Drug Users stops.

  6. There’s a little pre-election game of Chicken going on here, with the Senate having passed a bill extending all of the current income tax rates for everyone except the so-called “rich” and the House having passed its own bill extending them for all brackets.

    I still think that the democrats will cave in the end, and all the rates get extended for another year mere days before the election. The republicans hold the winning hand on this issue, and everybody knows it.

  7. No alt text?
    ‘One more word, hag, and you get it in the chops!’

    1. I think Boehner is more of a slap fight type.

  8. We deserve the Congress we’ve voted for, where government (rather than protecting our property and freedoms) is stealing everything we own, because many voters think they’re getting a free stolen lunch.

    Rather than a moral Congress, our immoral society is just reflected in Congress. Politicians have been selling us “security” as long as we give up our property and freedom in return. And many people now believe government will take care of them, like the many single mothers that look to government as their sugar daddy.

  9. …this much is certain: Unless taxpayers begin demanding their president and Congress act responsibly, and do the actual work they were elected to do…

    Sadly, taxpayers can demand all they want. At this point, they’re outnumbered by the voters.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.