Regarding Gridlock

Gridlock. As another debt ceiling showdown looms  "congressional gridlock" and its odious complement "partisan gridlock" will likely be rutted in repeat.  Generally speaking invocations of gridlock conjure notions of politicians playing politics and failing to do the work of the “people.”  And indeed polarization paired with party parity might produce an objectively dysfunctional gridlock. Still, as with accusations of incivility, etc., "gridlock" is liable to be applied promiscuously by partisans.

And so to a piece from earlier this year in which Reihan Salam of National Review interviewed Cornell constitutional law scholar Josh Chafetz...this upon the heels of Chafetz's article "The Phenomenology of Gridlock" (restricted access).


Observers — right, left, and center — have a tendency to look at Congress, see that it is not passing laws to deal with pressing issues, declare this to be evidence of institutional dysfunction, and then begin hunting for the causes. But inaction doesn’t have causes; action does. Lawmaking is inertial — the legal status quo ante endures unless something happens to change it.

And then:

I want to persuade people to start asking a different question. Instead of, “How do we deal with gridlock?”, I want them to ask whether sufficient public consensus exists to motivate specific legislative action. And only if the answer is yes and we still don’t see action do I want them to then begin asking about how to deal with this dysfunction.

Furthermore according to Chafetz we are prone to rate our own view more common than it really is, that is we are susceptible to the  “false consensus bias.” This would explain why accusations of gridlock are often tinged with righteous tones. 

Chafetz also remarks that even though our constitution is structured so that action requires a high degree of consensus…

…under divided government… plenty still gets done… the 2012 election and its aftermath did, I think, demonstrate that sufficient public consensus existed around higher taxes on the wealthy — and the 112th Congress passed precisely that, even though no personnel had yet changed over. That, to me, is a great example of responsiveness to public opinion, even though the next election was almost two full years away at that point.

But then the filibuster gets some criticism from the scholar since it can allow a small minority to frustrate a policy with a solid public consensus behind it.  Then responding to those critics who maintain that we would do well do make reforms in the direction of a Westminster-style parliamentary system (which would enable the majority party to enact its agenda without so many minority disruptions) Chafetz says that it certainly would enable more legislation but that doesn’t necessarily mean better government:

I think that the critics of the American constitutional system have made a lot of very good points, and they certainly need to be taken very seriously. But in the end, I’m (mostly) unpersuaded. I think it fundamentally comes down to your views on the best way to understand democracy. I tend to take a deliberative-democracy view — I think that structures that foster conversation and deliberation and that encourage people to try to think as part of a collective rather than solely in terms of their individual interests produce the most desirable polity. From that perspective, the fact that we have institutional structures that have different (but cross-cutting) time horizons and different (but cross-cutting) constituencies encourages us to negotiate with and among ourselves.

 Two cheers for democracy.  And if in the short term our present hyper-partisan polarization doesn’t seem to promote Chafetz’s ideal of deliberative democracy, in the long run…

…our normatively diverse polity does come to stable conclusions. Not about everything, of course, and new divisive issues will constantly arise. But plenty of once-divisive issues are now considered wholly uncontroversial.

Well, we shall see sir…

*For further scholarly reading: in the midst of blogging this piece I came across this Amitai Etzioni paper from 2012, which parallels in different language Chafetz’s main point about gridlock and consensus… with the further elaboration that the Republicans actually had the public consensus following 2010 midterms, indeed that self-described conservatives have always outnumbered self-described liberals by great margins (there remain conservative Democrats) so so-called gridlock was just democracy working as it should;  it wasn't gridlock it was conservative success. But Etzioni qualifies and complicates all this with an astute all-around assessment.