Skip to main content

Is Congress gridlocked and broken?

By Ed Hornick, CNN
Click to play
Poll: Government broken
  • Democrats and Republicans are sparring over health care reform, spending bills
  • Analysts say Congress is broken and focused mostly on 2010 midterm elections
  • Poll shows those sampled are wary of re-electing members of Congress from both parties
  • Tune in to CNN all this week for a special series, "Broken Government"

Washington (CNN) -- Two months into the new year, Congress is at a standstill, stuck in party-line votes, heated debates and electoral politics.

And there's no indication that will change before mid-term elections in November, political observers say: Democrats are afraid to take chances on anything that might alienate voters, and Republicans can stand pat and hope the anti-incumbent mood brewing in the country will help weaken Democrats' control of Congress.

"The problem is the combination of highly ideologically polarizing political parties operating at sort of near parity," said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution.

With many members of Congress in tough re-election fights this year -- and bitter fighting between the two parties -- key legislative items such as health care and climate change go nowhere, said Ed Rollins, a Republican strategist and CNN contributor.

Video: Bayh: 'Culture has changed'

"Worried members of Congress are often distracted by their opponents' campaigns," he said. "They start thinking of every tough vote they must cast as a potential campaign commercial to be used against them."

Mann agreed, noting that Republicans are "under pressure to stick with the party on the campaign, it means no one talks seriously, honestly."

Mann, co-author of the book "The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track," said part of the reason for the gridlock is the need for a supermajority by the party in power -- Democrats -- to get legislation passed.

In other words, it takes the necessary 60-seat majority to block a filibuster by Republicans.

iReport: What government program would you eliminate?

"We have supermajority requirements in the Senate," he said. "That makes for gridlock on difficult controversial issues."

Democrats lost the supermajority with a political upset in Massachusetts in January. Voters in the state elected Republican Scott Brown to fill the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's Senate seat.

Democrats also face governing in some of the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression. Republicans, Mann said, have used their handling of the country's economic crisis and other domestic issues in an appeal to win the public's confidence.

It's also a tough year to be an incumbent candidate, according to a recent national poll.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released February 16 found that 56 percent of those sampled said most Democrats in Congress do not deserve to be re-elected. An equal amount also said that most of their Republican counterparts don't deserve re-election.

Thirty-four percent of those polled think most members of Congress should be re-elected, the lowest number recorded for that question in a CNN poll.

The numbers are even lower than in 1994, when an anti-incumbent fever helped Republicans take back control of both legislative bodies.

"This is not a good year to be an incumbent, regardless of which party you belong to," said Keating Holland, CNN polling director. "Voters seem equally angry at both Republicans and Democrats this year."

The poll had a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana recently chastised Congress while announcing that he would not seek re-election.

"Congress is not operating as it should," Bayh said February 15. He added that there's too much partisanship and "the people's business is not getting done."

Bayh said he loves public service but does "not love Congress" and is "not motivated by strident partisanship or ideology."

He cited the Senate's recent failure to pass a jobs bill and legislation that would have created a deficit reduction commission as evidence of what he characterized as a broken political system.

But the Senate's top Republican has urged President Obama to listen to the other side when going forward on legislation.

In a recent statement, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said that Republicans "appreciate the opportunity to share ideas with the president" to reach a bipartisan consensus. But he warned that the White House must kill the current health care reform and spending bills.

McConnell added that setting "these goals aside would be a sign that the administration and Democrats in Congress are listening to the country and are truly interested in a bipartisan approach."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, responded in a statement that Democrats in the Senate "have promoted the pursuit of a bipartisan approach to health reform from day one."

"As we continue our work to fix our broken health care system, Senate Democrats will not relent on our commitment to protecting consumers from insurance company abuses, reducing health care costs, saving Medicare and cutting the deficit."

Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of the Cook Political Report, said that Republicans are like a "narrow party that is looking inward for sustenance."

"At this point, a Republican rebound seems more contingent upon a Democratic collapse than anything else. Certainly, Republicans aren't doing anything these days to help bring themselves back."

Democrats and many commentators, meanwhile, say Republicans are being obstructionists. They say the GOP has put up a fight in getting comprehensive health care reform passed in Congress.

"Republican obstructionists will continue [their fight against Democratic legislation] if President Obama allows them to run roughshod over him," Roland Martin, a CNN political analyst and commentator, wrote in a commentary. "When you're the top dog, you do what you have to do to govern."

Martin said Obama should channel his "inner Al Capone and go gangsta against your foes. Let 'em know that if they aren't with you, they are against you, and will pay the price."

CNN's Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.