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Apr 17 2012

Two Ways to Be a Do-Nothing Congress

Today’s congress is viewed by the public with minimal high regard (to borrow a phrase from the ever-polite former Speaker of the House, John McCormack).  Really minimal.  The institution’s approval ratings have been abysmally low for months—lower than their usual low—with a mere 12% of the public approving of the job Congress is doing.

At a political science conference in Chicago last week, I was graciously given the opportunity to serve on a roundtable panel to discuss the current congress.  One of my fellow panelists, Scott Adler, observed that people expect Congress to do things, and yet this congress has struggled to pass even routine legislation.  It should come as no surprise that so many people scorn the place.

The most obvious reason why Congress has been so unproductive is that party control of government is split:  Democrats have a majority in the U.S. Senate and hold the White House, while Republicans control the U.S. House.   Looked at this way, all we’re seeing is the consequence of a constitutional system that permits voters to select some, but not all, occupants of elected offices in the national government.  Thus, we sometimes get divided government and, as the political scientist Sarah Binder has shown, a drop in legislative output.

But in some ways, this implies that both parties actually want to pass legislation, yet are being stymied by their political opponents.  What if neither party is even trying?  In fact, this is exactly what is happening.  It appears that Senate Democrats and House Republicans not only anticipated the problems inherent in divided government, but also figured that more would be lost than gained by genuinely trying to enact new laws.  Accordingly, each chose a different strategy that ensured nothing substantive would be enacted.

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1 comments - Posted by Matthew Green at 10:45 AM - Categories: Government & Civil Society