The perverse political logic of gridlock

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With 15 percent Congressional approval ratings, it is counterintuitive that Congress would choose inaction. Yet, the explanation is straightforward. The boundaries of most Congressional districts strongly favor a particular party. When an incumbent ignores the party platform or works with the other party, they risk a competitive primary challenge. Recent elections have shown the dangers for moderates in working across the aisle, such as the demolition of the moderate Blue Dog Democrats in Congress.


National polls do not always influence Congress. A recent USA Today/Pew poll found 49 percent of responders would blame Republicans if the sequester takes effect compared to only 31 percent blaming the president. For many Republicans, however, a sequester deal with the Democrats to raise taxes is worse than the sequester in inviting a primary challenge. Democrats, for their part, fear that agreeing to entitlement cuts could lead to a primary challenge and make them vulnerable in a general election. The influence of the gridlock logic has grown in recent years.

The logic emerged in the aftermath of the 2010 mid-term elections when the Democrats lost their majority in the House of Representatives. The Democratic 111th Congress in 2009-2010, supported by the new president, moved aggressively to tackle the biggest issues on the public policy agenda. They included economic stimulus, healthcare reform, climate-change legislation, and financial services reform. In simplistic terms, the warts on the Democratic initiatives provided the Republicans what they needed to re-take the House. The mistake made by the Democrats was too much action.

In an endless, constant election cycle, any public or private willingness to compromise is also a liability. A case in point was Sen. Ron Wyden’s (D-Ore.) work with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on a budget plan that included Medicare reform. As a candidate for vice president last fall, Ryan used on the campaign trail his cooperation with Wyden to justify Republican ideas on Medicare. Wyden became a political Benedict Arnold for his bi-partisanship in some Democratic quarters (Wyden has since backed away from Ryan).

The media, political parties, and primary challengers will use incumbents' actions and efforts to compromise to stir anti-incumbency and vote them out of office. Consequently, the logic of gridlock is firmly in place with a superior election strategy being for incumbents to espouse the party-line and blame the opposing party for a lack of progress. Profiles of courage might be out there to generate measured, balanced solutions, but recent history suggests otherwise.

Windle is a former hill staffer and was also an independent candidate for Congress in Washington in the 2012 election.