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Fundamentals of Lawmaking: Gridlock in the 113th Congress

- November 9, 2012

The following is a guest post from University of Pittsburgh political scientist Jonathan Woon.


There has been much discussion of “the fundamentals” lately. Armed with knowledge of the economy and presidential approval, political scientists knew a few months ago that Obama had a (slightly) favorable chance of winning the election. Now that the excitement of the election is behind us and politicians face the task of governing, what might the fundamentals tell us about the next two years of lawmaking?

In the realm of congressional politics, the fundamentals I’m referring to are the configurations of legislators’ preferences required to break gridlock, per the theory laid out by Keith Krehbiel in Pivotal Politics and David Brady and Craig Volden in Revolving Gridlock. Breaking gridlock means having supermajorities sufficiently large enough to ignore a veto threat or to invoke cloture in the Senate. These requirements can be summarized graphically in the form of a gridlock interval—any proposal to move policy away from a position that lies within this interval can be expected lack the requisite supermajority coalition.

By looking at how elections affect these intervals, we can understand and form expectations about how productive Congress will be. The key is how the interval shifts and shrinks (or stretches) over time. The more of the previous interval that is “freed up” by the election (i.e., does not overlap the subsequent interval), the more productive we can expect Congress to be.

To see what we might expect over the next two years based on these fundamentals, I computed a projected gridlock interval for the 113th Congress (using Keith Poole’s NOMINATE scores and the technique I used to predict lawmaking following 2008 election) and plotted it along with the gridlock intervals for the 110th through the 112th Congresses (2007-2012) for comparison. The projected interval for the 113th is virtually identical to the interval for the 112th, so we can expect Congress to do…ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!

Well, that’s a bit of an overstatement, but it’s probably not too far off the mark. There will always be some existing policies that lie outside the interval and other laws will expire, effectively bringing them outside the interval, too. These will lead to reauthorizations and minor policy tweaks. But for most policy areas (even ones that seem pressing, like immigration reform), don’t expect any significant accomplishments. Instead, expect the status quo—more gridlock.

This is not too surprising considering how little the election changed the congressional landscape. The partisan divisions in each chamber will be substantially the same: Democrats picked up one or two seats in the Senate (depending on how you count Maine’s Angus King) and in the final tally will pick up a few seats (at best) in the House. And as usual, most legislators will be returning incumbents: roughly four in five Representatives and nine in ten Senators from the 112th Congress will return to the 113th. Given the stability of congressional preferences, had the presidential election turned out differently, it wouldn’t have matter much for the predicted gridlock interval (shown by the dashed line); we might have seen a very few small rightward shifts in policy under a Romney presidency, but not much more.

Contrast this with the effect of the 2008 election, which “freed up” a substantial portion of the 110th Congress’s gridlock interval. Indeed, this shift is one of the largest in recent history, and it gave us significant leftward policy movement: the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank financial regulation, and major fiscal stimulus. But when Republicans made significant gains in the midterm elections, the right end of the interval stretched further to the right. This increased gridlock: while the 112th Congress did narrowly avert a debt crisis, it has been one of the least productive Congresses in history (or worse).

This brings me to my final point: there is one major exception to the expected pattern of gridlock. Remember how Congress “solved” the debt-ceiling crisis? It formed a “super committee,” which then failed to come to any agreement, effectively kicking the can down the road. In its final days, the 112th Congress will find itself standing back over that can on the edge of the so-called “fiscal cliff.” Falling off of the fiscal cliff would mean a state of affairs so bad (and so far outside the gridlock interval) that we can expect Congress to do something about it. But it probably won’t do much except to kick the can just a tad bit further, temporarily extending the tax cuts and postponing the automatic budget cuts so that the 113th Congress will have to pick it up. They will, while somehow managing to avoid falling over the fiscal cliff. Just don’t expect much more than that.