In politics, gridlock is a situation in which the government is unable to pass new legislation, often because the presidency and the Congress are controlled by different political parties.
As the Brookings Institution has pointed out, gridlock has been around for as long as the United States, if not longer. Alexander Hamilton complained bitterly about the trouble the Continental Congress had in coming to an agreement; the debates between the Federalists and the Republicans were as fierce as any debates today.
The late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia argued that gridlock has gotten a bad rap; in fact, Scalia said, gridlock is just one more necessary part of the founding fathers’ plan. “Gridlock is what our system is designed for,” he told the president of the Newseum. At the same time, Scalia did point out that the Supreme Court operates more smoothly than the rest of the federal government. “We have to act. We can’t just say, ‘We haven’t decided about this case, so go away.’ Sooner or later you gotta vote, so there it is. Congress doesn’t have to do that…That’s the principle reason people don’t accuse us of gridlock. They accuse us of a lot of other stuff.”
Few people seem to share Scalia’s sunny view of gridlock. Journalists and politicians periodically complain that gridlock is making it impossible to solve the most serious problems of our day. In 2017, the Daily Beast went so far as to argue that political gridlock is “killing us, literally.” The blog argued that gridlock and lack of political will were allowing politicians to dodge dealing with issues like gun control and the soaring national debt: “our political system is grinding to a halt and producing more demagoguery than governance. Political gridlock is killing us. Literally.”
Similarly, in 2019, the Brookings Institution issued a report warning that gridlock was likely to destroy the US economy, or at least to put a major dent in it. When parties can’t reach political compromises, the report said, it means hold-ups on issues like tariffs, infrastructure projects, and budget balancing: “Put bluntly, when political discord leads to infrastructure failure, it doesn’t just deepen our distrust of government—it also takes our economy down with it.”
Gridlock, unsurprisingly, increases with the rise of partisanship. As America grows more politically divided, so does the federal government, making it tougher to reach compromises. Business Insider has reported, for example, that the Trump administration has been unable to pass any legislation that requires bipartisan support. Without the support of any Congressional Democrats, the administration relied heavily on executive orders and on other actions that didn’t require Congress.
The American public is apparently deeply pessimistic about the future of gridlock in the country. A Pew Center poll carried out in 2018 (just after the midterm elections) found that a majority of Americans believe that the president and Congress will fail to get legislation passed, because of persistent gridlock. Most of the people surveyed believed that partisanship was likely to either stay at the same level or get worse over the coming years. Ironically, the Pew Center also reported that most Americans were happy with the results of the midterm elections.