One of President Truman's most repeated lines, the “Do Nothing Congress,” is increasingly being used less as a metaphor and more as a statement of fact. The 112th Congress was the least productive since the Civil War (figure by Political Scientist Tobin Grant). So far, the 113th is on pace to do even worse. Why has gridlock been so bad recently? Many blame polarization. Certainly polarization has an effect. Bipartisan agreements have become less common as ideological moderates have disappeared from the chambers. That, coupled with a Senate increasingly requiring 60-votes to pass legislation, is a big reason why stalemate has become more common in recent decades.
Polarization is important but I would argue that it should take a back seat to another explanation: inter-chamber disagreement. Research has shown that House and Senate ideological differences are probably the most important indicators of gridlock. Even in instances of unified congressional control policy differences between the chambers can significant increase gridlock. In Binder’s book, Stalemate, she illustrates that bipartisan context is the largest substantive indicator of gridlock and productivity – outperforming both polarization and traditional divided government. The further the chambers are from one another, the more difficult it is for Congress to pass bills.
This means polarization’s effect on productivity is likely to be particularly violent effect when Congress is divided. This is not the same as divided government – when one party controls the White House and the other controls Congress. Divided control of Congress is the condition we find ourselves in today: one party controls the House and the other controls the Senate.
Since 1947, there have been six Congresses with divided party control. From 1981 to 1987 (the 104th to 106th Congresses), Republicans controlled the Senate and Democrats controlled the House of Representatives. The 107th Senate was mostly controlled by Democrats* while Republicans controlled the House. And finally, the 112th and 113th Congresses are divided in the same way. Historically speaking it is rare. The five divided congresses prior to the 113th passed, on average, 27% fewer laws than congresses with unified control regardless of who controlled the White House. Furthermore, as polarization has increased, divided congresses have become less productive.
This is the big reason the last two Congresses appear historically inept. Hyper-polarized parties each control one chamber of Congress. As we have routinely seen in the 113th, laws passed by one chamber are dead-on-arrival in the other. There is virtually no agreement between the chamber on basic policy details. Gridlock is more common today than it was 20 years ago. But even by today's standards the current levels are dismal.
Polarization matters, but it matters more in context. With split control of Congress the difference between the chambers has become immense. This, more than anything else, has made Truman’s words ring truer today than perhaps ever in our history.
(* With the exception of roughly 4 months)