Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Gridlock in Congress? Blame the GOP

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
May 21, 2012 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says that since 2007, congressional Republicans have taken the partisan wars to new extremes.
Julian Zelizer says that since 2007, congressional Republicans have taken the partisan wars to new extremes.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Congress is reaching a point where it will no longer be able to function
  • Observers are starting to note that both parties are not equally to blame, Zelizer says
  • Since 2007, Democrats have had to end Republican filibusters over 360 times, a record
  • Zelizer: Republican activists now target any party member who can be tagged as centrist

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" (Times Books) and of the new book "Governing America" (Princeton University Press).

(CNN) -- Congress is reaching a point where it will no longer be able to function at all. Over the past two years, some members of the Republican Party have ramped up the partisan wars on Capitol Hill. They are threatening to bring the legislative process to a standstill.

For many years, journalists and scholars have lamented the rise of partisan polarization on Capitol Hill. The number of moderates has vastly declined and the number of bills that receive bipartisan support has greatly diminished. The usual culprits range from the advent of the 24-hour news cycle to changing demographics.

But now observers are starting to note that both parties are not equally to blame, especially in recent years.

In their new book, "It's Even Worse Than It Looks," Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein -- two of the most prominent talking heads in Washington, known for their balanced view and proclivity toward moderation -- say that the Republican Party is to blame.

"The GOP," they wrote in a Washington Post op-ed based on the book, "has become an insurgent outlier in American politics." Mann and Ornstein trace the partisan style back to the emergence of Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist in the 1970s, when the two men promoted a style of slash-and-burn, take-no-prisoners politics that has remained integral to the strategy of congressional Republicans.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

There is always a certain amount of nostalgia in American politics. The notion that Congress used to be a better place is one of the staple arguments in public rhetoric. But there are times when things are worse than usual.

While both parties have played roles in the growth of polarization since the 1970s, since 2007 congressional Republicans have been taking the partisan wars to new extremes in several areas.

The first is with the kind of brinksmanship budgetary politics that has now become normative. Last week, House Speaker John Boehner once again threatened that Republicans would not vote to increase the debt ceiling unless Democrats agreed to certain tax and spending policies sought by the GOP. Republicans have used this tactic repeatedly in the past few years, each time bringing the nation closer to the brink of default.

This is no way to decide on a budget or to handle the nation's debt. Holding the debt ceiling hostage to win political battles has undermined international confidence in the U.S. political system. It has also created an unhealthy atmosphere where politicians are willing to take great risks with the goal of winning certain legislative battles. There need to be some limits to what legislators are willing to do in the pursuit of victory.

The second way Republicans push the envelope of partisanship is with the filibuster. As political junkies know, use of the filibuster has greatly increased since the 1970s. Both parties have been guilty. A tool once reserved for high-profile legislation such as civil rights became a normalized tool of combat making the Senate a supermajoritarian body on almost every decision.

Senators don't even have to filibuster anymore. They can simply raise the threat and that brings the discussion to an end. Senators have also employed additional tactics such as anonymous holds, whereby senators can secretly prevent action on a bill and nobody can know who was responsible.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook/CNNOpinion

But the number of filibusters by Republicans has escalated, and they have been far more willing to use the tactic than their opponents. Since 2007, the Senate Historical Office has shown, Democrats have had to end Republican filibusters more than 360 times, a historic record.

Finally, there has been a much sharper shift to the right within the Republican Party than there has been to the left in the Democratic Party. Here, too, the data is rather clear.

In January, political scientists Kenneth Poole and Christopher Hare concluded, based on their close analysis of the roll call vote, that "in the last few Congresses, the overlap has vanished; that is, the most liberal Republican is to the right of the most conservative Democrat."

Last week, the political-science blog The Monkey Cage pointed out that Sen. Richard Lugar's political positions have changed little since he entered the Senate in 1977, and yet: "In his first term in Congress, Sen. Lugar was the 23rd most moderate Republican in the Senate; in the most recent term (through 2011), he was the fifth most moderate."

As Lugar's recent primary loss shows, Republican activists are now targeting any member of the party who can be tagged as centrists, and they are pushing their caucus farther to the right, making compromise almost impossible.

The current hardening of these procedural wars has some resemblance to the 1950s, when Southern committee chairmen, who were then the kings of Capitol Hill, used their power in the House and Senate to prevent any kind of progress on issues such as civil rights or health care.

Although a series of events allowed for a huge legislative breakthrough in 1964 and 1965, the Southern committee chairs regained power after the 1966 midterm elections and continued to assert their power in the closed rooms of Capitol Hill. The situation reached a boiling point in the 1970s, when in the aftermath of Watergate, reformers transformed the system by weakening committee chairs, empowering party leaders and opening up the legislative process through sunshine rules and more.

It could be that Republicans will take things so far that we may reach one of those rare moments when congressional reform happens. If reform does not happen, and these trends continue, the nation will be left with an inoperative legislative process that can't handle the problems we face with the economy, social problems and foreign policy.

This is a situation that should be of equal concern to the right, left and center. Without a functional Congress, the nation's government will not be able to live up to the challenges of the day.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT