The Unheralded Brilliance of Gridlock
Congress is the most unpopular body in the country. So much so that I, at age 22, cannot remember a time in which popular opinion overwhelmingly sided in favor of Congress as a whole. Of course, the aside in this is the fact that constituents generally approve of their personal congressman. Gallup found that only 19% of Americans approve of Congress overall. However, in a 2013 study, Gallup conducted the first poll on approval ratings of personal congressmen in quite some time. They found 46% of citizens approve of their representative while 41% disapprove. The individual approval rating shows a stark difference in judgement. Another Gallup study found that the main reason for staunch disapproval ratings is gridlock. That same study showed gridlock is attributed to a shocking 59% of rationale. Despite this immense hatred for gridlock, it is in fact a valuable bulwark.
Our system of government, with all of its glorious checks and balances, was designed to get very little done. Initially, the very length of term for Congress indicates this. Having to run every two years is not extremely advantageous when passing comprehensive bills containing any policy position, let alone a hotly contentious one. Congressmen were meant to face their constituent’s regularly at the ballot box. This prevented representatives from becoming too comfortable, and thus losing touch (although some have argued, and somewhat rightly, this has still occurred).
Secondly, anyone that has even partially studied Congress and its interworking’s understands the enormous difficulty in passing a bill into law. The famous “I’m Just a Bill” song from Schoolhouse Rocksums up the process very well, but does not delve into much specific detail. A proposed bill is first subject to a vote in committee (either House or Senate), then it proceeds to the chamber floor of its origin. From there, if lucky enough to obtain a passing vote, it advances to the other chamber. There, it is debated fruitfully and given a vote. All throughout the process amendments can be proposed, voted on, themselves amended, and finally included in the original bill or dropped entirely. A feature unique to the Senate, and as equally hindering of any other, is the filibuster. A frequent and favored tool used by Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY), among others, the filibuster can prevent any vote from being taken on the floor of the Senate. One stipulation has been added since its inception, the filibuster must be germane to the bill being debated. No longer can a Senator read cooking recipes, the phone book, or Green Eggs and Ham for hours on end.
Should a bill survive all of that tedious, but necessary, deliberation it then must endure the threat of veto by the President. Once the bill is signed into law, it then must be put into effect by the Executive Branch. Oftentimes, the President himself becomes frustrated with the gridlock and opts instead either not enforcing the law at all or turns to “phone and pen” (Yes, that’d be you now formerly, Mr. President.) This usurpation of delegated power is an unacceptable transgression in all but the most extreme circumstances, and is usually used in the name of “getting something done.” Obama was a savant in this regard.
A final (but not entirely final) check occurs once the bill is signed into law, but occasionally after implementation, and the law or action can be taken up in the court system. Upon arrival in the Supreme Court, the nine (usually) Justices hold hearings and legal proceedings, before finally making their final judgements on constitutionality of the law or action in question. The Supreme Court remains an important check on legislative and executive power, whether you like their recent decisions or not.
One much less heralded, and even much less pursued, course of action lies in the power of the States and Congress (yes, it is the States, not the People) to amend the Constitution. While not entirely relevant to the gridlock topic, it remains one direction that earnest masses could turn in order to enact change. However, the amendment process, in and of itself, is a roadblock to “getting things done.” Amending the Constitution is a very difficult task, whether pursued in Congress or by way of a Convention of States. An immense two-thirds of both houses of Congress, or two-thirds of States convened in this purpose, is required to successfully amend our founding document. No such barrier to “getting things done” can compare. That is why it has only successfully been accomplished 17 times, and all by way of Congress.
The trend towards progressive (action over inaction, rather than ideological, although that too) politics has already done great damage to our intentionally slow-moving system by way of reckless legislation. Chief among them being the 17th Amendment. The Senate used to be the one solid seat the States had at the Federal table. Yet Woodrow Wilson, in all of his progressive “wisdom” robbed them of that enumerated authority. This should be repealed immediately, but it likely never will be. Luckily, this great sluggish structure of government has prevented further progressive damage that started with Andrew Jackson (one could accurately argue some of his predecessors initiated it, but in my opinion it was Jackson).
Summarily, be grateful for the system of immense checks and balances we were afforded. Inaction is the best action, and it is the underlying responsibility of Congress. There is a commonly cited motto within the criminal law arena, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” While the merits of Blackstone’s Formulation remain in question to me within its intended jurisdiction, its application to law-making is crucial. For it is better that ten bad laws be struck down, than one good one be implemented. While there is certainly much room to criticize various members for their policy, do not so much criticize the body as a whole. Inaction is their job, and it is been done quite well since its inception.
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