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Don't say 'dysfunctional Congress'

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
July 15, 2013 -- Updated 1301 GMT (2101 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: It's time to stop using the phrase "dysfunctional Congress"
  • Zelizer: "Dysfunction" masks the fact that GOP uses strategic politics
  • He says Republicans rely on power of Congressional process to block legislation
  • Zelizer: Both sides should abandon the wording and focus on real terms of the debate

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- It's time to stop using the phrase "dysfunctional Congress" in our political lexicon.

There have been a number of articles about the 113th Congress, pointing to how little legislation has moved through both chambers (15 bills, one-third less than the 112th Congress). It's as though Congress has become a graveyard for legislation.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, recently lamented that the sequestration of budget funds was a sign of a "dysfunctional institution." Every time a legislator retires, he or she bemoans how conditions have changed, that nothing gets done anymore.

But talking about dysfunction masks the fact that conservative Republicans have consciously been using the power of the congressional process to block legislation. The GOP uses the legislative process to make it nearly impossible to put through new programs or provide funding that existing policies need.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

So far, conservatives have been able to extract stringent border control provisions for the immigration bill -- a measure that seemed like it would pass after the 2012 election. But its fate in the House remains uncertain.

As Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein wrote in their book, "It's Even Worse Than it Looks," the use of legislative obstruction to weaken the federal government is a strategy that Republicans embarked on many decades ago, starting in the 1970s when young congressional renegades like Newt Gingrich -- a rising star -- introduced an aggressive style of politics that eviscerated opponents and brought bipartisan negotiations to a halt.

In fact, even Gingrich's style was not new, as it mimicked the strategy that Conservative southern Democrats, who had chaired most of the key committees, used against liberals in their own party since the late 1930s. When Southern Democrats opposed bills like civil rights, they allowed the bills to come out of committee for a vote. After the 1970s, congressional Republicans used mechanisms such as the filibuster and party leadership PACs to make certain that the parties could not enter into any deals.

The GOP's reliance on legislative obstruction has accelerated in recent years with Gingrich's successors practicing the art even more effectively. The same has been true in the Senate, where Republicans have used the threat of a filibuster to weaken key agencies, water down legislation and prevent Democrats from making big changes to the judicial branch through appointments.

Contemporary Democrats have deployed their share of dilatory tactics when Republicans were in the White House, but not to the levels we are seeing today. Nor have Democrats ever had as much to gain from creating gridlock.

The term "dysfunction" masks the strategic politics behind these changes and downplays how obstruction tends to benefit conservatives much more than liberals.

As Jonathan Weisman recently wrote in The New York Times, the costs of gridlock in the 113th Congress have been enormously consequential. Interest rates have doubled for younger Americans who depend on student loans for their education. Livestock farmers who had been waiting for disaster relief to help them through the impact of a drought are now left to continue waiting for help to arrive. The immigration bill, which would finally bring some path for immigrants to achieve citizenship, is still at risk in the House.

Each side of the political aisle loses a lot by talking about "dysfunction" instead of partisan strategy.

For liberals, the term is dangerous because it focuses attention too much on broad and vague institutional problems rather than the specific political tactics being employed by the GOP to block government. It masks the real terms of the debate, playing favorably to Republicans who move forward with an anti-government agenda but elude culpability.

It is one thing to talk about how too many filibusters prevent the Senate from making decision. It is another thing to talk about how Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the GOP have taken the filibuster threat to unprecedented levels to prevent Democrats from even trying to move forward on issues like climate change.

The term is equally problematic for Republicans who avoid being more direct with the public about what they are doing. Republicans have for so long been the party with power in Washington, whether in Congress or the White House, that many conservatives have lost faith that their party really stands for anything more than holding power.

They come under constant attack for basically accepting big government. But the tactics of congressional Republicans show that the drive to undercut government remains alive and well. By grinding the legislative process to a halt, Republicans do manage to stop government from growing and bleed the government of the resources needed to run effective programs.

By hiding their actions as they too accept the talk of dysfunctional institutions, many of their most loyal supporters don't fully grasp what they have been doing. The GOP might very well lose undecided voters who see it as incapable of governance and unable to stand for principles.

Getting rid of the concept of a dysfunctional Congress would provide both sides with a much more realistic understanding of what's at stake in the battles in Capitol Hill.

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

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