The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congress is dysfunctional. History shows it won’t change anytime soon.

None of the conditions that have historically enabled Congress to function are present today or likely to return soon

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) meets with reporters on Feb. 2. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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A previous version of this article incorrectly said that 81 percent of White Protestants voted for Donald Trump in 2020. The percentage is of White evangelicals. This version has been corrected.

House Republicans are threatening economic catastrophe by refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless President Biden and Senate Democrats agree to steep domestic spending cuts. The odds of this hostage-taking working are low, and the economic risk is unnecessary, but it’s a sign of the political times: The parties are so polarized that even the most basic legislative task is hard to pull off.

When will it get better in Washington? History indicates probably not anytime soon. The conditions that historically have allowed for a productive American government — most famously, in the few bipartisan decades after World War II — are wholly absent in 2023. The country will need new legislative approaches and philosophies, beyond the traditional federal bill, if it is to address the major issues of the day.

America has been riven with partisanship almost since its founding. After an unstable system of shifting and dying parties before the Civil War, the following decades produced a much more static political environment. Republicans faced off against Democrats — and it wasn’t much of a contest. The Republicans lost only four presidential elections between 1860 and 1932. Especially during the Progressive Era of 1896 to 1932, they dominated national politics. Segregationist Democrats controlled the South, and Republicans essentially had one-party rule most everywhere else.

However, the Great Depression — and the ineffectual response to it by Republican President Herbert Hoover — created an opening for Democrats. Franklin D. Roosevelt responded by knitting together his “New Deal” coalition of union members and blue-collar workers, racial and religious minorities, socialists and Southern Whites. This bloc of voters led Democrats to victory in seven of nine presidential elections between 1932 and 1964, as well as to control of both houses of Congress during all but four years in that period.

Amid this epoch of Democratic power — especially after World War II — Congress achieved some of its greatest bipartisan successes. In the 1960s alone, large bipartisan majorities in both chambers voted for Medicare and Medicaid, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, an update to American immigration laws that ended national-origin quotas and, for the first time ever, federal funding for education. Several factors were responsible for this unusually bipartisan era.

First, and maybe most importantly, was the sheer dominance of the Democratic Party. Republicans had no rational hope of influencing legislation unless they added their voice to compromises within the Democratic Party or, as with civil rights legislation, joined a Democratic faction to help pass bills that faced some opposition within the majority party.

Second, for much of the postwar period, the ideological differences between the parties had narrowed dramatically. In the 1950s, majorities in both parties, for example, took a hard line on containing communism and were sympathetic to civil rights. Further, each party spanned the ideological spectrum, and the class-based voting that brought Roosevelt to prominence declined to a degree.

Reflecting the lack of disagreement on major issues and the ideological breadth of both parties, split-ticket voting rose dramatically. In 1904, only 1.6 percent of congressional districts split their presidential and House votes between the parties. By 1948, however, that number had risen to 21.3 percent and it peaked at 44.1 percent in 1972. Incredibly, in 1950, the American Political Science Association released a report that lamented the lack of partisanship in the country, looking back fondly on the more participatory and accountable politics of the 19th century.

Split-ticket voting meant this era also featured a high number of members of Congress who found themselves pulled in two political directions. This “cross-pressuring” fueled ideological diversity within parties, districts and states. Indeed, many congressional Democrats hailed from very conservative districts or states (voting less than 45 percent Democratic at the presidential level), while plenty of congressional Republicans represented very liberal constituencies (voting more than 55 percent Democratic at the presidential level). Research from scholars Hahrie Hahn and David Brady reveals that for every Congress between 1960 and 1972, between approximately 30 and 80 members from these super split districts sat in the House, while roughly five to 20 were in the Senate.

For these cross-pressured members, the beliefs of their constituents clashed to some degree with the politics of their national party — which made political tribalism more difficult. It also gave them great incentive to work in a bipartisan fashion to address issues important to their constituents.

In the 1970s, however, all of these factors promoting bipartisan consensus and legislation began to break down. The cross-pressured members began to disappear as the parties moved further apart ideologically. They lost elections, changed parties or retired. By 1990, they were entirely gone from Congress.

The rise of the conservative movement within the Republican Party hastened these developments, beginning with the presidential nomination of Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) in 1964, which attracted conservative Democrats to the party and repelled liberals. The ideological consensus between the parties began to falter, even in areas where it had once reigned, like civil rights.

Issues related to women, gender and sexuality created an even deeper rift between the parties in the 1970s, with the GOP assuming the mantle of conservative “family values.” The election of conservative Ronald Reagan in 1980 reflected this ideological stratification, which only continued to grow throughout the 1980s — as Democrats and Republicans continued to move increasingly further apart on issues like abortion.

This divide was yet further exacerbated as control of Congress and the White House became more hotly contested. Republicans won the Senate for the first time in 24 years in 1980, and the House for the first time in 40 years in 1994. The presidency and Congress both began swinging back and forth. That left each party dreaming of total control. The majority party became determined to ram through a polarizing partisan agenda, leaving the minority party with less incentive to compromise, lest it enable the majority to claim bipartisan achievements on which to run.

And it wasn’t just elected officials who divided. It was voters, too. Before 1980, the difference between religious and nonreligious Whites in terms of their party identification was negligible. By 2020, however, religious Whites were dependably Republican, with 81 percent of White evangelicals voting for Donald Trump. Meanwhile, the civil rights era turned African Americans solidly Democratic and, unsurprisingly, 87 percent of Black voters supported Joe Biden. Each party can now rely on well-defined, gerrymandered (or geographically sorted) constituencies that map almost perfectly onto its ideological agenda.

This ideological separation — and the distrust and loathing it generates — makes compromise extremely challenging. America is ruled today by two rival nations, it seems, each with its own worldview and culture, each believing that it must destroy the other to save the moral integrity of the nation. Given that black-and-white baseline, it is understandable that each party employs the bevy of counter-majoritarian and dilatory rules in Congress, such as the filibuster, to muck up the legislative process.

When one looks at U.S. history in total, the postwar period looks increasingly like a happy accident. One-party dominance combined with a degree of ideological harmony between the parties enabled several decades of legislative productivity. But now we have almost the opposite: a chasm separating two ideologically coherent parties, both of which can rationally hope to win both the presidency and control of Congress.

For the foreseeable future, it’s going to be very difficult to pass national bills through a dysfunctional House and the supermajority requirements of the Senate. It’s time to consider creative solutions — ones that work around Congress to address national problems. That could mean states and localities working on their own, or it could mean like-minded states coming together through interstate compacts to tackle common problems. The federal government might even be able to employ what we term “optional legislation,” where states could opt-in to new federal programs, but only if they foot the cost. States that opt-out would pay zero, thereby giving the opposing party less reason to object to the underlying bill.

Each of these solutions has drawbacks, but it’s time to accept the fact that congressional gridlock puts us all at risk and it’s not going away anytime soon.