Press Box

I Love Gridlock!

Why doesn’t the rest of the Washington press corps?

Washington Post columnist David S. Broder condemns legislative gridlock, on average, several times a year. Pressing the worry lines from his face, Broder shouts fie on the do-nothing Congress and demands an end to partisan bickering. Why can’t we all just get along, he asks, break up the logjam on Capitol Hill, and pass some major bills?

Broder’s complaint is as subtle as a pair of nunchucks upside the head. In his world, blocking legislation is partisan and awful while passing legislation—no matter how ill-conceived—is nonpartisan and wonderful. Broder imagines the House and Senate as legislative factories that should be judged by the same metrics the Soviets would apply to a steel mill: Never mind the quality or whether or not there’s a demand. How much did it produce last year? Not much? Then, let’s shake up management!

ABC News and NPR assumed the Broder position this week, decrying Capitol Hill gridlock. On Friday, Oct. 18, World News Tonight reporter Linda Douglass complains that Congress had passed dozens of trivial bills but that “gridlock” kept it from passing a prescription-drug program for seniors, an energy bill, and an extension of the welfare program. And Congress’ failure to pass a new budget meant that there is no money for the new programs it did pass (additional SEC enforcement; new FBI computers; more border patrol agents; medical research to combat bioweapons). 

On Monday’s Morning Edition(scroll down to listen) NPR correspondent Cokie Roberts similarly exploits the Broder trope, although she doesn’t simply report her findings. Instead, Roberts relies on that increasingly annoying broadcast convention in which the reporter is “interviewed” by the host, in this case the melodious Bob Edwards, who telegraphs Roberts’ message. “What started out as an active congressional session became so mired in partisan bickering on domestic issues that even the programs that passed don’t have money to implement them,” Edwards practically sings.

Roberts finds partisanship so out of control on the Hill that “fighting between the parties” has escalated into “intraparty fighting,” as Republicans battle Republicans for the privilege of pouring sand in the gears of governance. By the end of Roberts’ segment, her lust for hot, flowing legislation burns so intense that she—daughter of Rep. Hale Boggs and Rep. Lindy Boggs—moans with nostalgia for the days when legislation was prepared in “back rooms.” Of course, the 107th Congress’ back room is where the civil-liberties-endangering USA PATRIOT Act was rubber-stamped and shipped after only a few weeks’ scrutiny. If ever a bill was passed that reminds us of the glories of gridlock—a slow and deliberative Congress that protects us from the political excesses of the moment—the PATRIOT Act is it.

For conservatives who find evidence of the liberal media conspiracy everywhere they look, the Broder take on gridlock looks like liberal bias. Which, of course, it is. When Republicans go on a parliamentary tear, passing, for example, a tax cut, the Broderites don’t celebrate the clearing of the legislative blockage. But it also speaks to the journalistic preference of something to report rather than nothing. From the press gallery, congressional gridlock looks like a 0-0 soccer match in the rain with no shoot-out in sight. Who wants to write about that? Where are the visuals?

If gridlock were so evil, you’d expect voters would punish the gridmasters. But according to (surprise!) a Sept. 8 column by David S. Broder, political scientists have found that gridlock tends to put the institution of Congress in a bad light, but voters don’t punish individual lawmakers for obstructing legislation.

Broder writes, “Individual members of Congress are valued for their constituent services, their presence at local events and their ability to bring specific projects to their districts—and most face negligible, underfinanced opposition.” If voters are happy with the no-new-laws consequences of gridlock, why not the Washington press corps?