The political gridlock that marked most of the 1980s and 1990s is back--and it's about to get worse. After the November midterm elections, not even timidly liberal initiatives will be able to overcome the omnipresent filibuster. If the Republicans manage to take the Senate, conservative legislation will be confronted by filibusters from the Democratic side of the aisle as well as the obstacle of a veto from President Barack Obama.
The clashes to come will surely be unpleasant. Recall that the last time energized congressional Republicans faced down a Democratic White House, we got government shutdowns and impeachment proceedings. Yet some politicians and pundits will argue--as they did the last time stalemate reigned--that gridlock is not such a bad thing. Former Congressman Bill Frenzel gave voice to a common sentiment when he declared in the mid-1990s, "Gridlock is a natural gift the framers of our Constitution gave us so that the country would not be subjected to policy swings resulting from the whimsy of the public. And the competition--whether multi-branch, multilevel, or multi-house--is important to those checks and balances and to our ongoing kind of centrist government. Thank heaven we do not have a government that nationalizes one year and privatizes next year."
Gridlock ensures that two sides reach a compromise--or else nothing happens. According to Frenzel or, for example, the two former Justice Department officials from the George H.W. Bush era who recently wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled "Why Gridlock in Washington is Good," the only real losers are inflexible partisans, and the only real cost is having to wait until they come to their senses and find the middle ground.
But, as we will learn next year, gridlock is not neutral. It is corrosive. The policy results that follow are neither centrist nor stable. Rather, stalemate in Washington leads to a slow and steady deterioration of governance--deterioration that is at the heart of our present economic crisis.
To see this requires grasping a simple truth: Even if Congress can't pass new laws, things don't stay the same. Instead, the role of government will change profoundly as major shifts in the economy and society affect how policies work. We call this process "drift," and it is anything but benign. Think of how rising inflation erodes the value of the federal minimum wage--an obvious example that highlights a broader dynamic. The failure to update policy as the economic world evolves has in fact been central to the long-term American march toward a vastly more unequal society.
Consider two of the most important inequality-abetting trends of the past generation: the ascendance of Wall Street and the collapse of organized labor. When information technology revolutionized finance, banking regulations designed in the 1930s were rendered obsolete. While new laws and rules played some role, drift was fundamental. "With technological change dearly accelerating, existing regulatory structures are being bypassed, freeing market forces to enhance wealth creation," Alan Greenspan observed triumphantly in 1997. "The market-stabilizing private regulatory forces should gradually displace many cumbersome, increasingly ineffective government structures. This is a likely outcome, since governments, by their nature, cannot adjust sufficiently quickly to a changing environment."
The dramatic collapse of unions also stemmed from the failure of government to update its policies over a period of decades. As employment shifted from manufacturing to services and from the Rustbelt to the Sunbelt, the American industrial-relations system--which was designed in the 1930s and geared toward manufacturing employment and essentially limited to the Midwestern/Northeastern industrial heartland--was badly outflanked. Government could have responded, but it didn't. Most dramatically, a push for industrial-relations reform in the late 1970s fell victim to vociferous Republican opposition and a then-rare legislative tactic, the filibuster. …