While gridlock in the U.S. Senate might seem like a new phenomenon it is not. The term is said to have been inducted into the political lexicon following the elections of 1980. However it might come as a surprise to many to learn that over two centuries ago Alexander Hamilton was voicing complaints concerning the deadlock that was prevalent in the Continental Congress then. The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that gridlock is inherent in the American political system and is a result of the separation of powers which inevitably has the various branches of government not just sharing but competing for power.
That is not to mean however that the level of gridlock has always been the same through the ages. Sometimes the U.S. Senate manages to cross the partisan divide and get a lot of work done, while other times it is just deadlock after deadlock. One particular period during which there was a lot of bipartisan cooperation was during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.
Great Society Congress
Then the Great Society Congress managed to enact various pieces of landmark legislation and this includes the civil rights act. As for instances of gridlock 1992 serves as a good example. At the time efforts by the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives to undertake reforms with regards to voter registration laws, parental leave, banking, campaign finance, lobbying and capital gains tax ended in deadlock.
According to some observers gridlock was designed into the American political system by the framers of the constitution. Per these observers this was a way of ensuring that the government enjoyed powers that were sharply limited. Additionally the framers of the constitution are said to have had a conservative bent in the sense that they would have preferred no action rather than hasty action.
Part of the reason why the Founding Fathers of the United States were so keen on curbing the centralization of powers was the fact that they had just released themselves from colonialism. That’s why the checks and balances were both vertical where power was shared by local, state and federal levels of government as well as horizontally where the power was shared between the judiciary, executive and legislative branches. In their thinking they only wanted initiatives to pass only if they enjoyed broad support. That’s why in the U.S. Senate when an initiative or a piece of legislation is highly partisan and polarizing it is likely to end in a deadlock but when it enjoys across-the-aisle support then it usually gets done. In the recent past however such instances have been few and far between.
Political observers say that while the Founding Fathers may have done this deliberately they were not aiming for a U.S. Senate body that would be incapable of any action. The problem however is that they did not anticipate the rise of national political parties. Rather they thought that there would be various competing factions from the states capable of forming shifting alliances in order to pass laws. The tragedy though for the U.S. Senate is that there is now a two-party system which is partisan, disciplined and rigid and thus the permanent gridlock.