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Wikipedia rather naively defines gridlock a “a situation when there is difficulty passing laws that satisfy the needs of the people.” … as if satiating the needs of ‘the people’ were a simple matter of passing laws.
However, when it comes to the United States Government, it is more appropriate to think of gridlock as a feature, not a bug.
You disagree? Let’s conduct a thought experiment. Think of all the laws enacted in the last 30 years. Whether you consider yourself a liberal or a conservative, in the three decades since 1986, has there been a single law you absolutely couldn't live without?
Defense of Marriage Act...a winner? Did the Patriot Act make you feel safer? Did No Child Left Behind make your children smarter? Are you certain that TARP’s bailout the big banks averted nuclear winter? Did Obamacare make your premiums go down and the quality of your healthcare go up? When Graham Leach Bliley reduced regulation on banks in 1999 or Dodd Frank reimposed it ten years later and ten times over, did you want to hang a ‘mission accomplished’ banner at the corner of Broadway and Wall Street?
The fact is that most of us would struggle to come up with more than a few examples of laws from the past 30 years that we would consider vital, even if presented with a list ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_federal_legislation,_1901%E2%80%932001 and (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_federal_legislation,_2001%E2%80%93present )
This is not to say that nobody benefited from some of the legislation passed during the last 30 years. Can you imagine being a farmer and having to survive without subsidies (Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002)? Or a private prison corporation without “three strikes?” (Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994)? What pharmaceutical manufacturer doesn’t get a warm fuzzy feeling every time they think about Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003) (Medicare Part D)
But still, it’s a reasonable question - What if Congress had done nothing over the past 30 years except bicker and collect their paychecks? What if they hadn’t succeeding in passing a single law? Would the average American have shed a tear over all the stillborn legislation that might have been?
Now at this point, take a breath...
Your sensibilities are certainly offended by this blatant nihilism. While you are furiously wracking your brain to recall an example of a legislative must-have, you are also sputtering out a counterpoint:
“But why have a Congress if you don't want them to do anything?”
Really? That's equivalent of asking “Why have money in the bank if you aren't spending it?”
Like dollars in the bank, we take comfort in knowing our legislators are there if we need them. We want an active vibrant Congress. We want Congress to be vociferously debating the issues. We want our legislators to be proposing well-intentioned legislation designed to solve all the world’s problems...we just seldom want them to succeed in turning these well-intentioned proposals into actual laws.
Like an army that trains in peacetime by attacking fictional targets with fictional bombs, we would prefer our legislators stay at peak readiness while doing as little real damage as practical in the interim. Like a teenager who values both sex and birth control, we appreciate the process, while generally hoping to avoid the natural outcome.
As Groucho Marx probably didn’t say, "Politics is the art of looking for trouble; finding it everywhere, diagnosing it wrongly, and applying unsuitable remedies.". It is good that politicians are constantly looking for trouble and proposing remedies; it is even better that few of these solutions actually become reality.
Wouldn’t we be better off if instead of spending all their time fighting, politicians moved toward the center, and worked together to deliver compromise legislation?
In most cases, not really. Compromise typically means that politicians have found a way to pander to their respective bases while sticking some poor sucker with the bill.
The classic compromise is “Okay, you can lower taxes if I can increase spending.” Or “you can increase benefits for relatively well-off senior citizens because they vote, if I can do favors for pharmaceutical companies because they make campaign contributions.”
Whether it be struggling millennials or unborn future taxpayers, there is inevitably somebody who is not at the table. Compromise provides both a veneer of respectability and the requisite lubrication to ensure that when politicians stick it to an unsuspecting victim, the sticking is epic.
Like a pack of wild dogs that picks up a scent, a pack of politicians working toward a common goal can cause real damage. It is far safer for the bloodthirsty pack to dissipate their energies fighting amongst themselves instead of inflicting slaughter on the rights and pocketbooks of the populace.
And yet, while this prophylaxis achieved via rugby scrum is important, it is not even the primary benefit of gridlock.
While gridlock certainly does protect the citizenry from the predations of their elected officials, perhaps the most important benefit of gridlock is that it reconciles psychology with reality.
Here is the psychology. When bad things happen - a mass murder, a natural disaster, an economic shock - we instinctively want government to “do something.”
Here is the reality (bad news/good news version). Unfortunately, most of the time there is absolutely nothing government can do to solve the problem. Fortunately, many problems resolve themselves eventually without government action.
Given this reality, the logical response of government in most cases would be to do nothing, particularly since there are inevitably unintended consequences.
But logical or not, a “don’t just do something, stand there!” approach runs counter to basic psychology. It is simply not going to be acceptable to an electorate.
In a gridlock situation, people can feel like the government, or at least their party, is trying to “do something.” Endless debate and knock-down drag-out political battles allow people to work through their shock and get it out of their system, while avoiding legislating in an even bigger problem.
America’s saving grace is that the founders anticipated what a mess we would put ourselves in two centuries later. One of the geniuses of the founders was to build gridlock into the system.
In parliamentary systems, the prime minister is the leader of the party. He can run with a bad idea pretty much unencumbered by the opposition. In the US system, separation of powers and a bifurcated congress means that a lot of bad ideas die in battle between the executive, congress and courts before they they could take root.
Its as if the founders can be heard from the sidelines shouting “Don’t worry, America - we’ve got this!”
So in this election, like all others, cheer for your own team. Stake out your tribal identity. Excoriate the opposition. Predict Armageddon if the other tribe prevails. Predict nirvana if your tribe is victorious. Pay lip service to hope. To change. To making America great again or sane again or safe for crony capitalism again. Dream of higher walls or bigger government. Dream of soaking the rich or oppressing the poor. Dream of regulating our way to collective virtue or prosperity if you must.
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