Why does nothing happen in Congress? With legitimate frustration, people regularly ask me this question.
It does seem we frequently have a “Do Nothing Congress”, a phrase made popular by Harry Truman during his successful 1948 campaign. In fact, observers noted late last year the lapses of the current Congress, distinguishing itself as one of the least productive in several decades.
A surprising about-face
But March 2020 marks an unparalleled comeback by this group of legislators.
Only weeks after a contentious House impeachment and subsequent trial in the Senate, the nation literally shuts down overnight; millions of Americans instructed to shelter in place, stay at home to stop the relentless spread of a mysterious virus.
Taking decisive steps, Congress negotiated and passed – in less than a month – a three phase legislative design to soften the twin health and economic crises inflicted by the pandemic. The price tag exceeds 2 trillion – yes trillion – dollars. In general, bipartisanship characterized negotiations and a vast majority from both parties, in both chambers, agreed.
What a difference a few weeks make. The legislative branch can in fact respond rapidly when confronted with threats to life and livelihood. A “Do Nothing Congress” turned quickly into a “Can Do Congress.”
This tells us something important about our representative institutions: They may appear ineffective, and often incapable, but during a crisis, they act decisively and for the good of the entire nation.
Let’s take a look at the partisan obstacles Congress surmounted to achieve this surprising turnaround.
Strong partisanship in the legislative branch
Typically, public approval of Congress is low. It seldom reaches 25%. Low teens, even single-digits, are not uncommon. By comparison, the Supreme Court rarely drops below 45% and generally enjoys approval of at least a majority. Raw partisanship limits approval. Over the past several decades, growing party divisions characterize voting patterns in the legislature. Partisan maneuver and persistent wrangling take center stage, nightly, on the cable and network news channels. This does not appeal to most Americans. Partisan warfare fatigues the public and appears self-serving at the expense of the general welfare. People want results and Congress generally cannot deliver.[i]
The figure shows the rise and extent of strong partisanship in both chambers – House and Senate. A party unity vote occurs when at least a majority of one party votes against at least a majority of the other. Since the late 1960s, the percentage of party unity votes are increasing. While there is substantial variation across the years, the trajectory demonstrates a fading bipartisanship. Well over 50-60 percent of votes pit a majority of one party against a majority of another. In addition, the percentages of party unity votes have ticked up since 2010, edging closer to 70 percent.
Clearly, in this context, the likelihood of compromise falls considerably and obstruction prospers. That portends fewer laws enacted, which is precisely what occurs. In short, greater partisan division produces less productivity.
No wonder people are frustrated.
It is however important to recall the nation’s Founders did not consider efficiency a political virtue. If they had, the legislature may contain one instead of two chambers, and the length of terms in office (2 years in House, 6 years in Senate) would be the same across the House and Senate.
Rather, the Founders valued representation. Strong connections between the legislature and public encourages responsiveness in times of need. Absent intense, widespread public demands, however, a polarized legislature finds it difficult to enact broad, substantive legislation. Instead, it is easier to accommodate narrow interests, which may impede legislation more so than advance it. This presents an ugly picture of legislative politics. Justifiably, the public turns away and expects very little.
Elite and mass partisanship mirror one another. Everyday partisans tend to emulate their party leaders. They adopt the preferences and attitudes of elected officials and take cues from them on how to respond to political events and personalities. On the other hand, strong motivations to win re-election offer compelling reasons for party leaders to align with everyday partisans – their base of popular support. They want to demonstrate to voters that they share common political aspirations and behaviors.
In either case, given the partisan changes in the legislature – depicted above, similar changes should be evident among the public.
The Table shows increasing polarization in presidential approval scores. Consider the “difference” column on the right hand side of the Table. The average partisan differences in approval of Richard Nixon were 41 points. Republicans generally approved of Nixon (75%), Democrats less so (34%).
Today a 30-point difference would be astonishing, a near collapse in contemporary partisanship.
Indeed, in the Obama and Trump era, the average approval differences are over twice as large as during the 1970s. Even the 50-point gap average during the Regan years seems unusually small compared to today’s standards.
The strong partisanship in the public makes it even more difficult for elected officials to compromise.
Compromise they did
Inside and outside the federal legislature, the political environment encourages disagreement and ultimately gridlock. This has been true for many years.
By December of 2019, nearly a year into the 2-year session, this Congress had passed only 78 bills. Another year at this snail’s pace would guarantee a record low productivity. Typically, other Congresses pass 300-500 bills.
Yet this stubbornly partisan group rebounded. They may never catch the average productivity levels of past Congresses, but the last 3 weeks showed they could overcome tribal instincts, cooperate, and accomplish important work.
Congress’s newfound capacity to produce broad and impactful legislation demonstrates an enduring feature of our democracy. Partisan interests, though powerful and seemingly ubiquitous, fall quickly under the weight of wide scale tragedy. Policy changes in American politics are incremental, until they are not.
Federal government efforts in WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, and 9/11 led to vast changes in policy and citizens’ expectations of government’s role in society. We are now witnessing something similar.
Without question, this is a victory for the country. Whether you are liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, the rapid and considerable actions taken by Congress are key to saving lives and resuming a normal economy.
Forever, we will remember March 2020 for the worldwide pandemic. This is as it should be.
Nevertheless, do not overlook the underachieving 116th Congress and its courage to overcome years of partisanship and discord and seize the moment.
[i] Perversely, folks like their congressperson but do not like Congress.