The most dysfunctional Congress ever?

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 12/12/2012, 8:21 a.m.

Another aspect of Congressional dysfunction is growing partisanship. Stewart says the most vocal leadership in Congress is now “stridently ideological,” in contrast to the American public, which he says is “very practically-oriented.”

According to several measures, polarization is on the rise, and thus ideological overlap between the two parties is practically non-existent.

The National Journal, for instance, compiles annual data on Congressional voting records, and finds that in 2010 and 2011, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have moved so far away from each other that no Democrat had a voting record to the right of any Republicans, and no Republican had a voting record to the left of any Democrat.

In the House, only six Republicans compiled a voting record to the left of the most conservative Democrat. Partisan division hasn’t always been so stark: In 1982, when National Journal first started collecting this data, the voting record of 58 senators — the majority — fell somewhere in between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat.

This “ideological sorting of the parties,” as Stewart calls it, dates all the way back to 1965, when African Americans were brought into the electorate. As he explains, the Democratic Party was once comprised of Northern liberals and Southern conservatives, while the Republican Party was made up of various conservative groups.

But when Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, the South flipped to Republican control, liberals from the North migrated to the Democratic Party, and the Republican Party became the home of the conservative movement.

Later, Ronald Reagan, who Stewart calls a “polarizing figure,” stepped up this trend to separate the parties based on ideology. The Tea Party is the most recent manifestation of this growing division, Stewart says, and is “pulling the Republican Party to the right, further to the right than the American electorate.” Meanwhile, he says, there’s “no radical left goading the Democratic Party on.”

However dysfunctional Congress may be right now, Schulman points out that the legislative branch has always been unpopular. “There have only been a few times when Congress has had a higher approval rating than the president,” he says. “Even when the president’s approval rating was low, Congress’ was even lower.”

As for the historically abysmal approval numbers, Schulman says this is part of a larger trend towards the distrust of institutions. “Confidence in Congress, churches, doctors and universities have all gone steadily down since the mid-1960s, with the exception of the military,” he says. “What you’re seeing is a long-term historical trend of lack of trust not only in government, but in all kinds of institutions of public life.”

So what’s the solution? Stewart says that Americans must remember that gridlock is a “feature” of the country’s political system. “Our Constitution was designed to slow down and thwart quick action,” he says. “And I think that’s what we’ve gotten.”

Beyond that, he says, unlike this year’s elections — when, despite historically-low approval ratings for Congress, Americans chose to send the overwhelming majority of incumbents back to Capitol Hill — voters must be willing to give their Congressman the boot.

“If you don’t like gridlock, and you’re a Republican, you have to be willing to vote for Democrats,” he says. “I don’t think that’s going to happen, but that’s the only mechanism we have.”