Thinking about Gridlock on the Eve of a (Potential) Government Shutdown

As the government-shutdown political theater continues to unfold, I naturally find myself wondering whether to blame the House for passing a spending bill that the Senate and President don’t like, or the Senate for passing a bill that the House doesn’t prefer either. This leads me to thinking about The Phenomenology of Gridlock, a recent essay by Josh Chafetz.

Here’s Chafetz (with footnotes omitted):

Gridlock is not a phenomenon. It is the absence of phenomena. Observers assert that gridlock exists in Congress when laws are not passed, nominees are not confirmed, treaties are not ratified, and so on. Gridlock, that is, is the name we give to the perpetuation of the status quo ante when we believe that perpetuation to be unwarranted.

This recognition of gridlock’s basic nature comes with an important corollary: The antithesis of gridlock is not no-gridlock. Rather, the opposite of gridlock is the enactment of some specific policy or policies, the confirmation of some specific nominee or nominees, and so on. There may be widespread outrage about “gridlock,” but unless there is sufficient consensus about what should be done, the status quo will — and should — endure.

This point is often overlooked because political observers have a (perhaps natural) tendency to assume that there is widespread support for their preferred positions, engaging in what psychologists call “false consensus bias.”

And then …

Where there is widespread public disagreement or uncertainty as to a particular course of action, we should not expect to see that action coming out of Congress. At any given time, there will be certain issues on which public consensus is emerging — I think we can probably put gay rights into this category — and others on which we remain deeply divided — for example, issues surrounding government spending and the national debt. The former tend to fade from salience
(there have been no widespread calls to reenact “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” for example), while the latter remain in the political foreground. And to the extent that the public remains polarized about an issue, there is simply no public impetus for a particular policy. … Where no such consensus exists, we simply should not expect to see any new policy enacted.

Of course, the consequences of gridlock can be significantly more dire when the status quo is to fall off of a cliff — as in the case of the government shutdown or the debt ceiling. Whether there is political will to deviate from the current path — in other words, whether this is gridlock or a game of chicken — we will soon see. And here’s an interesting post by Tyler Cowen, which implies that the House Republicans may ultimately wish to pass a series of very short-term funding measures so as to keep negotiations going indefinitely.

Update: Rick Hasen has a post about a recent essay of his with a somewhat more skeptical view of our government’s ability to function, and discussing whether constitutional change is needed to deal with political dysfunction. The abstract concludes: “We are in the middle of a highly partisan moment in American history but it is hard to know how long it will last. I conclude it is worth waiting to see if the political system self-corrects, especially given the risks of tinkering with the constitutional system and the value of not changing our constitutional traditions lightly.”