Gridlock: Is it really as bad as it seems?

Allia Calkins

Imagine that you are driving down a long stretch of highway. There are two scenarios: cruising along at 10mph over the speed limit, or stuck in stop-and-go traffic. Most people prefer the former; no one wants to spend unnecessary time trapped in a car. But what if the reason for the traffic was a detour caused by construction, and without that detour, your car would drive off a cliff? Given that scenario you probably wouldn’t mind the extra thirty minutes in the car. Consider the United States government as the car. When one party has a supermajority in a legislative body, either at the national or local level, they are able to pass many laws with no objections. The minority party has very limited power to propose, pass, or block legislation. With a supermajority in power, the car cruises happily along the highway toward the cliff. With just a simple majority in power, it is more difficult to pass laws. There is more debate, bill amendments, and bargaining. Often the government reaches a roadblock that takes a while to bypass, but once it does, the law often represents at least a partial opinion of each party, or, in the best cases, a compromise.

This past December, the country witnessed one of these roadblocks firsthand. Democrats and Republicans were split on how to handle the Fiscal Cliff until the last minute and spent the month hurling ultimatums, threats, and bargains at each other. Due to its seeming inability to compromise, public opinion of Congress reached an all-time low in December, with various news outlets reporting that only 18% of Americans approved of Congress [1]. But would the public have been any happier with limited debate and a supermajority of either Democrats or Republicans in Congress? And would the resulting bill have been any better than the one recently passed?

In Arizona, Republicans held a supermajority in both state houses from 2010-2012. During that time, some of the most conservative laws in the nation were proposed. Representative Kimberly Yee from Phoenix noted that, as a Republican, “There were a lot of measures proposed knowing we had a supermajority…So given this moment in time, we saw legislation that captured our core principles” [2]. While the legislation captured the beliefs of the Republican supermajority, the Democratic minority was left with little voice in government. They did not have enough votes to veto anything they disagreed with, and the Republicans did not need Democratic votes or opinions to pass anything. Because of this, Democrats in Arizona went unrepresented in the state government. Anjali Abraham, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona noted that during the Republican supermajority administration, “We saw a lot of bills that we thought were extreme and not right for Arizona…We felt like there was a huge rollback of civil liberties in the areas of women’s health, reproductive freedom, free-speech issues and separation of church and state” [2]. Because the Republicans in Arizona faced no opposition, they did not have to amend unpopular bills. The Arizona state legislature was very much like the car driving smoothly down the highway toward the cliff. Similarly, California elected a Democrat supermajority to its legislature in 2012. The coming year will show how its leaders use their newfound power.

Even though many may have issue with it, the fact that the United States Congress faces daily gridlock is not as threatening to the future of the country as many believe. To get anything passed in Congress, both sides must reach a compromise and listen to each other. With a supermajority in power, the minority has much less of a voice than it has with a simple majority ruling things. While the 2010-2012 Congress was the least productive in U.S. history [3], it is still better than the alternative of having an extremely productive Congress pass legislation that is not in the best interest of the country as a whole.

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