We've heard a lot about our do-nothing Congress lately. As the 113th Congress slouches toward the close of what is likely to be one of the least-productive sessions on record, the Brookings Institution's Sarah Binder is out with a new paper charting the rise of legislative gridlock over the past 65 years.
When we measure Congressional productivity we're often reduced to fairly blunt methods, like counting pages in the Congressional record, or the number of bills passed and introduced. The main problem with these methods is that they don't account for the significance of legislation in any way; there's no way to differentiate a bill naming a post office from the Civil Rights Act, for instance. More to the point, bill tallies tell us nothing about what Congress accomplished relative to the demands it was facing in a given year. Passing hundreds of minor bills doesn't do us much good if legislators allow the government to shut down.
To identify the major issues facing each Congress, Binder turned to the op-ed pages of the New York Times, particularly the unsigned editorials (like this one) that stand as the paper's "official" position on a given topic. If the Times editorialized on a given issue four or more times in the course of a Congressional term, Binder considered it significant.
"I then turned to news coverage and congressional documents to determine whether or not Congress and the president took legislative action in that Congress to address each salient issue," she writes. "The resulting gridlock score captures the percentage of [significant] agenda items left in limbo at the close of the Congress." You can see the results below.
Overall, the dotted trend line shows that the likelihood of Congressional deadlock on a given issue has roughly doubled in the past 65 years. In the 80th Congress (1947-1948), fewer than 30 percent of significant issues were left unlegislated. Contrast that with the 112th Congress (2011-2012), which left 71 percent of major issues unlegislated.
Binder identifies multiple causes of gridlock, none of which should surprise anyone who's been watching Congress lately. The first is that party control matters. "Divided government empowers the opposition party to block agenda issues they oppose," Binder writes. The more aggressive use of the Senate filibuster in the past decade is another factor. A simple majority is no longer sufficient to get your agenda through the Senate - you need that filibuster-proof 60 votes.
Polarization also looms large. "As the parties polarize, it really complicates reaching common ground on big, tough issues," Binder told me. Yet Binder thinks polarized politics are less of a new normal and more of a return to historic norms. "That big political center of the '50s and '60s is the aberration. This is the trend we’re going to see for quite some time."
As always, the question looms: How much can these trends continue? The number of bills enacted per session is fast approaching zero. But on Binder's measure of significance, the gridlock meter stands only at 71 percent. That suggests that things could still get quite a bit worse.