The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gridlock in Congress? It’s probably even worse than you think

It's an oft-repeated but rarely backed-up claim: The current partisan gridlock in Washington is unprecedented. We're often skeptical of such claims -- especially given that journalists have notoriously short memories and people often remember things in the "olden days" as being better than today, even if they weren't.

That's why it caught our eye when Wonkblog highlighted a new study on the topic. The below chart, from the Brookings Institution's Sarah Binder, looks at how many salient issues -- as determined by those appearing in the New York Times editorial pages -- weren't resolved by each Congress:

As you can see, the percentage of gridlocked (Gridlock'd?) issues has more than doubled since 1950 and is close to a new high -- coming up just shy of the 1999-2000 Congress. Fully 75 percent of salient issues today are in gridlock, according to Binder.  (The reason? "The rough parity between the parties fuels an intense competition for control of the White House and Congress," writes Brookings' Thomas Mann in a new piece on polarization in the Atlantic. "The stakes are high, because the ideological differences are large, and because both parties have a realistic chance of gaining or maintaining control. This leads to strategic agenda-setting and voting, even on issues with little or no ideological content and a tribalism that is now such a prominent feature of American politics.")

A big reason Binder's numbers improve on previous research is that she aimed to focus on the number of important issues that were gummed up -- rather than merely looking at the gross numbers of bills proposed and passed (think: post offices). Here's a great visualization of that "gross" approach from Credit Union magazine's Ryan Donovan.

But while both approaches show gridlock hitting a new high (and Congress hitting a new low), we think they might actually undersell congressional gridlock.

As Binder notes, many of the issues "resolved" by Congress were merely papered over or -- we would argue -- kicked down the road because Congress couldn't reach an actual long-term agreement. "Even when Congress and the president manage to reach agreement on the big issues of the day, these deals are often half-measures and second-bests," Binder writes.

Examples: Congress today will raise the debt ceiling for a very short period of time, leaving it to do the same thing again a few months later. It has also taken to passing a series of brief "continuing resolutions" rather than passing an actual budget. And that's to say nothing of the budgetary gimmicks Congress has dreamed up to try and confront its biggest problems, including the "fiscal cliff," the "supercommittee" and the Simpson-Bowles debt commission. All of them in lieu of making tough, lasting choices.

You could make a strong argument that dilatory tactics on issues like the budget should count more toward assessing "gridlock" than  the failure of Congress to pass legislation on even the most salient issues. But quantifying that concept is very, very difficult. We'd argue that, if you could, you would find that gridlock in Congress is even worse than it looks.