The political gridlock that marked most of the 1980s and 1990s is back -- and it's about to get worse. After the November midterm elections, not even timidly liberal initiatives will be able to overcome the omnipresent filibuster. If the Republicans manage to take the Senate, conservative legislation will be confronted by filibusters from the Democratic side of the aisle as well as the obstacle of a veto from President Barack Obama.
The clashes to come will surely be unpleasant. Recall that the last time energized congressional Republicans faced down a Democratic White House, we got government shutdowns and impeachment proceedings. Yet some politicians and pundits will argue -- as they did the last time stalemate reigned -- that gridlock is not such a bad thing. Former Congressman Bill Frenzel gave voice to a common sentiment when he declared in the mid-1990s, "Gridlock is a natural gift the framers of our Constitution gave us so that the country would not be subjected to policy swings resulting from the whimsy of the public. And the competition -- whether multi-branch, multilevel, or multi-house -- is important to those checks and balances and to our ongoing kind of centrist government. Thank heaven we do not have a government that nationalizes one year and privatizes next year."
Gridlock ensures that two sides reach a compromise -- or else nothing happens. According to Frenzel or, for example, the two former Justice Department officials from the George H.W. Bush era who recently wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled "Why Gridlock in Washington is Good," the only real losers are inflexible partisans, and the only real cost is having to wait until they come to their senses and find the middle ground.
But, as we will learn next year, gridlock is not neutral. It is corrosive. The policy results that follow are neither centrist nor stable. Rather, stalemate in Washington leads to a slow and steady deterioration of governance -- deterioration that is at the heart of our present economic crisis.
To see this requires grasping a simple truth: Even if Congress can't pass new laws, things don't stay the same. Instead, the role of government will change profoundly as major shifts in the economy and society affect how policies work. We call this process "drift," and it is anything but benign. Think of how rising inflation erodes the value of the federal minimum wage -- an obvious example that highlights a broader dynamic. The failure to update policy as the economic world evolves has in fact been central to the long-term American march toward a vastly more unequal society.
Consider two of the most important inequality-abetting trends of the past generation: the ascendance of Wall Street and the collapse of organized labor. When information technology revolutionized finance, banking regulations designed in the 1930s were rendered obsolete. While new laws and rules played some role, drift was fundamental. "With technological change clearly accelerating, existing regulatory structures are being bypassed, freeing market forces to enhance wealth creation," Alan Greenspan observed triumphantly in 1997. "The market-stabilizing private regulatory forces should gradually displace many cumbersome, increasingly ineffective government structures. This is a likely outcome, since governments, by their nature, cannot adjust sufficiently quickly to a changing environment."
The dramatic collapse of unions also stemmed from the failure of government to update its policies over a period of decades. As employment shifted from manufacturing to services and from the Rustbelt to the Sunbelt, the American industrial-relations system -- which was designed in the 1930s and geared toward manufacturing employment and essentially limited to the Midwestern/Northeastern industrial heartland -- was badly outflanked. Government could have responded, but it didn't. Most dramatically, a push for industrial-relations reform in the late 1970s fell victim to vociferous Republican opposition and a then-rare legislative tactic, the filibuster.
But more often than not, drift is a quiet, passive-aggressive form of politics. It is not marked by dramatic partisan fights or big signing ceremonies -- but by nothing happening. No Deal rather than the New Deal. And because it amounts to reform by stealth, drift can be used to achieve things that few elected officials would openly pursue.
Drift plays favorites. It gives advantages to the organized and vigilant and those who want the government to be less and less involved in shaping American society and responding to social and economic challenges. Drift empowers those who work in the shadows of politics: lobbyists and interest groups and activist networks.
There's another sense in which gridlock is not neutral: It corrodes public faith in the ability of government to address problems -- not least because it's usually accompanied by plenty of nastiness. This was perhaps Gingrich's greatest insight: Anything that tied Washington in knots, anything that highlighted petty bickering, anything that fueled public disgust benefited the anti-government party.
Appreciating the scope and impact of drift puts the Obama administration's rocky first two years in a new light. Coming into office after three decades of debilitating failure to bring policy in line with a transformed economy and society, Democrats sought to shake the government out of its slumber. On issues from energy and climate to finance to health care, the Obama administration attempted to confront problems that had accumulated over the course of decades of drift. And despite the threat of filibuster, massive lobbying by special interests, and the recurrent recalcitrance of party moderates, they made real, if incomplete, progress in some critical areas. After the midterm election, however, further efforts are sure to be blocked. The combination of stalemate and drift means that the problems are once again going to pile up.
Gridlock will not bring the stability and compromise that pundits crave. It will result in a slow, quiet, yet inexorable erosion of government's capacity to effectively address the nation's problems. Nor will it foster centrist solutions. Instead, it will strengthen the hands of those who resist the very idea that government can or should address these big issues -- and who understand full well that blocking change in policy yields social and economic outcomes they favor.
This was a major part of the political story of the 1980s and 1990s, when the capacity of government to act in support of America's middle class eroded steeply, and economic inequality festered. For two big reasons, however, stalemate is likely to be even more consequential this time around.
The first is that the two parties have grown even further apart. Hard as it is to believe, studies of congressional voting suggest the Republican Party continued to march rightward after the Gingrich revolution -- and even further right under George W. Bush's leadership. The moderate wing of the party is all but gone; those who were once the right-wing are now considered centrist. The Tea Party movement has only accelerated this trend, as any sign of interest in compromise with Democrats now runs the risk of a challenge from the party base. "Centrist" solutions are impossible when one party is so far from the actual center.
The second big reason that gridlock will be worse is now well known among those who follow politics closely, yet still only hazily understood in the country at large: the massive increase in the use of the filibuster, especially since the early 1990s. This shift represents a quasi-constitutional change in the character of American government that has made the Senate even more sclerotic and substantially more consequential.
Despite all of this, the challenge is not new, nor is it insurmountable. Almost a century ago, a 25-year-old Walter Lippmann summed up the intellectual foundations of the Progressive Era in a three-word title: Drift and Mastery. Unfettered markets were inflicting devastating social costs. Government was weak, captured by powerful organized interests, and riddled by veto points (most notably then, an activist conservative judiciary playing a role similar to today's Senate filibuster). For progressives, the central task was political: how to create a government capable of wrestling effectively with the problems that accompanied an economic revolution.
Success occurred over a period of decades. It required a clear understanding of the problem and a long view that recognized the crucial role of political reform. It also required organization -- to increase understanding of the political system's dysfunction, to keep the fight going even when conditions were unfavorable, and to pressure elected officials and counter the efforts of the many organized forces that benefit from a politics of drift. Lippmann described the challenge as pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps: using a flawed democracy to fix a flawed democracy. But it worked. In the Progressive Era and then the New Deal, a flawed democracy and a rapacious economy were improved democratically.
We need a similar perspective today. Gridlock is corrosive, and even when it momentarily protects our values, we should press for reforms. The obvious place to begin is the Senate filibuster -- a rule that could be amended by a committed majority but will only be changed if the case for weakening it is made early and often, not once stalemate is entrenched. And that may be the larger lesson as drift once again takes hold: The only way to change course is to recognize what gridlock really means and to push back against those who would protect its foundations.