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Politicians Sometimes Benefit From Gridlock

Good Question: Who Wins With Gridlock?
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Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (credit: CBS)

Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (credit: CBS)

Alan Gionet Good Question
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Written by Alan Gionet DENVER (CBS4) – Just ask people on the street if you want to hear what they think of the gridlock that has leaders in Washington looking like the parking lot at Sports Authority Field at Mile High after a Broncos game.

“They don’t want to get anything done,” a person said.

“Everybody is trying to be in control,” another said.

“Well I think it’s trying to be the toughest guy on the block,” another said.

The block is in a neighborhood many would like to avoid these days. While Congress overall has rarely had a great approval rating a recent CBS News/New York Times poll found 80 percent of the people asked disapprove of Congress — only 12 percent approve.

CBS4 asked around to see if who knew someone in that 12 percent.

“I would not be one of them,” one woman said.

“Politicians sometimes benefit from gridlock because they can paint their opponents into a corner,” said University of Colorado political science professor Dr. Ken Bickers.

Bickers pointed out that while gridlock may be bad for the country, it may be good for individual politicians.

“Gridlock is actually a fairly common phenomenon in American history. We’ve had lots and lots of periods of divided government.”

The thanks also goes to James Madison. The diminutive framer (who still holds the title of shortest President at 5-foot-4) was itching for a fight in his concept of democracy, largely adopted in the U.S. Constitution.

“The idea of the constitutional design was to pit faction against faction and to design a constitutional order so that it would kind of gum up the works until there was broad consensus,” Bickers said. “So things have to pass through the House. Those folks, all of them, are up for election every 2 years. Then things have to pass through the Senate. Those folks are up only every 6 years and then the president and veto any of that legislation. Beyond that there’s a Supreme Court that can declare things unconstitutional.”

So making things hard was what the framers came to be about.

In periods of gridlock smaller legislation gets bottled up good. Bigger legislation often does get done – at least in the past.

“Like welfare reform in the 1990s when Bill Clinton was president, Republicans had control of the Congress that happened in the 1980s, tax reform happened with Ronald Reagan,” Bickers said.

But there’s another difference that has come about over the years since the Constitution.

“I don’t think they anticipated the way in which politicians would use this to get on television.”

It’s often clear that the more strident the political opinion, the more likely the quote or sound bite are to be printed, broadcast or more widely communicated over the Web. The loudest shouting often reaches the most ears.

“Because they can run against Congress,” Bickers said. “They can run against Washington, they can make a name for themselves in that way. It makes it much harder for the institution to produce public policy outcomes.”

Even with that low public opinion of Congress it’s often said voters still like or even tolerate their own representative. Not so fast. Even that may be fading.

“I think mine’s a bum,” said one woman downtown.

Another reason for the current gridlock – the Democrats’ resistance to cut social programs and the anti-tax pledge signed by hundreds of Republicans that helped create the impasse in Congress and the deficit super-committee. See Steve Kroft’s interview with Grover Norquist for more on that.

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