Why Can’t Congress Get Anything Done?

You may have heard, over the past few years, that the United States Congress is a mess. This past session of Congress that just ended, the 112th Congress, has been called the most do-nothing Congress in the history of the United States. 220 bills were passed by the 112th Congress, of which 40 dealt with the renaming of post offices, which makes the 112th the most unproductive session of Congress since these sorts of records started being kept, in 1948.

Why is Congress like this, you may ask? Well, it’s both simple and somewhat complex. On the simple side of things, we currently have a divided government. The US Senate is controlled by one party (the Democrats), while the House of Representatives is controlled by another (the Republicans). In order for bills to be signed into law, the bills from both chambers of Congress must match. Unsurprisingly, the two parties have had difficulties in hammering out legislation so that Bill X passes the Senate (presumably requiring more liberal aspects be included in Bill X) while matching the Bill X that passes the House (most likely including conservative elements).

We’ve had divided governments before, however, and never before have we seen this level of impressive nothingness. To paraphrase the Passover Haggadah: “Why is this Congress different from all other Congresses?” In the past, legislators have been able to come together and compromise in order to get past their differences and go about the business of running the country. Take, for example, the 99th Congress, which was basically the same scenario we see today, with the parties flipped. The House was controlled by Democrats, the Senate by Republicans, with a Republican President (Ronald Reagan). However, unlike our most recently expired Congress, the 99th was able to govern the country. To the tune of 664 bills signed into law. You read that right. Divided government, and yet six hundred and sixty-four bills passed both chambers of the United States Congress and were signed into law. What’s different?

Redistricting. Many Congress-watchers make the case, quite convincingly, that the ubiquitous gerrymandering in the political process has thrown a wrench into things. “Gerrymandering” is the method of drawing electoral districts in such a way as to give an advantage to a person, or political party. The term was introduced in response to the way an early 19th century Governor of Massachusetts drew state senate districts in such a way as to give his party a leg up. The resulting districts were said to resemble a salamander, and as a result, every time this topic comes up, political pundits besmirch the good name of salamanders everywhere (and Elbridge Gerry, but let’s forget about that).

That little historical aside… aside, what does gerrymandering mean for Congress? It means that Congress can’t get anything done. The gerrymander creates districts that are much more Democratic- or Republican-leaning than the districts would otherwise be, and as such, these new Congressional districts end up more solidly “red” or “blue” than the surrounding state or nation as a whole. According to famed number-cruncher Nate Silver, the number of districts where the presidential vote margin is at least twenty percentage points different from the nation as a whole has nearly doubled. There were one hundred and twenty-three of these “landslide districts” twenty years ago. Now there are two hundred and forty-two. That means there are 242 Congresspersons who really don’t need to worry about losing their seat to a member of the opposite party. A Democratic landslide district might have voted for Barack Obama 83% to 17%, 32 percentage points more favorable for Obama than the country as a whole. A congresswoman from this district certainly would not need to worry about a Republican winning the seat, and would only need to worry about a challenge from the left.

These gerrymandered districts don’t necessarily mean that Congresspeople are inherently more unproductive than before, but these narrowly-drawn districts mean that these representatives are doing what they were elected to do – but now with a much more partisan base to represent than before.


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