Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Face of Gridlock

The House empowers the majority party; the Senate empowers individual senators. That's the way it has been for about a century and will continue for the foreseeable future. With the intoxicating power to shut down the institution via the filibuster and hold, it is no wonder that most members of the House dream of sitting in a Senate seat.

Just witness the story of Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) who single-handedly blocked 47 Obama appointments in order to "get the attention of the administration" because he wanted a lucrative military contract to build refueling tankers for the Air Force to be awarded to a company in his state. When asked why he did it, Shelby replied: "Ultimately, I am a senator from Alabama. I wanted to make sure there was fairness because if there was fairness, the jobs would go there." And when asked about whether or not the nominees he blocked were qualified, he replied: "Oh, I don't have any idea."

Senatorial holds and the blocking of nominees are not partisan issues--they happen regardless of the party who holds the White House and who controls Congress. Their frequent use does point to a larger problem, however: the fact that the U.S. Congress in the modern era is dysfunctional. With 535 members each looking out for their own parochial and partisan interests, often with little regard for the national interest, Congress is failing in its responsibility as a co-equal branch. It is no wonder that every president, even if they were a member of Congress previously, looks to increase the power of the executive branch vis-a-vis Congress. It is also little wonder that a mere 14% of Americans approve of the way Congress is handling their job.

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