Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Don't say 'dysfunctional Congress'

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 9:01 AM EDT, Mon July 15, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: It's time to stop using the phrase "dysfunctional Congress"
  • Zelizer: "Dysfunction" masks the fact that GOP uses strategic politics
  • He says Republicans rely on power of Congressional process to block legislation
  • Zelizer: Both sides should abandon the wording and focus on real terms of the debate

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- It's time to stop using the phrase "dysfunctional Congress" in our political lexicon.

There have been a number of articles about the 113th Congress, pointing to how little legislation has moved through both chambers (15 bills, one-third less than the 112th Congress). It's as though Congress has become a graveyard for legislation.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, recently lamented that the sequestration of budget funds was a sign of a "dysfunctional institution." Every time a legislator retires, he or she bemoans how conditions have changed, that nothing gets done anymore.

But talking about dysfunction masks the fact that conservative Republicans have consciously been using the power of the congressional process to block legislation. The GOP uses the legislative process to make it nearly impossible to put through new programs or provide funding that existing policies need.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

So far, conservatives have been able to extract stringent border control provisions for the immigration bill -- a measure that seemed like it would pass after the 2012 election. But its fate in the House remains uncertain.

As Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein wrote in their book, "It's Even Worse Than it Looks," the use of legislative obstruction to weaken the federal government is a strategy that Republicans embarked on many decades ago, starting in the 1970s when young congressional renegades like Newt Gingrich -- a rising star -- introduced an aggressive style of politics that eviscerated opponents and brought bipartisan negotiations to a halt.

In fact, even Gingrich's style was not new, as it mimicked the strategy that Conservative southern Democrats, who had chaired most of the key committees, used against liberals in their own party since the late 1930s. When Southern Democrats opposed bills like civil rights, they allowed the bills to come out of committee for a vote. After the 1970s, congressional Republicans used mechanisms such as the filibuster and party leadership PACs to make certain that the parties could not enter into any deals.

The GOP's reliance on legislative obstruction has accelerated in recent years with Gingrich's successors practicing the art even more effectively. The same has been true in the Senate, where Republicans have used the threat of a filibuster to weaken key agencies, water down legislation and prevent Democrats from making big changes to the judicial branch through appointments.

Contemporary Democrats have deployed their share of dilatory tactics when Republicans were in the White House, but not to the levels we are seeing today. Nor have Democrats ever had as much to gain from creating gridlock.

The term "dysfunction" masks the strategic politics behind these changes and downplays how obstruction tends to benefit conservatives much more than liberals.

As Jonathan Weisman recently wrote in The New York Times, the costs of gridlock in the 113th Congress have been enormously consequential. Interest rates have doubled for younger Americans who depend on student loans for their education. Livestock farmers who had been waiting for disaster relief to help them through the impact of a drought are now left to continue waiting for help to arrive. The immigration bill, which would finally bring some path for immigrants to achieve citizenship, is still at risk in the House.

Each side of the political aisle loses a lot by talking about "dysfunction" instead of partisan strategy.

For liberals, the term is dangerous because it focuses attention too much on broad and vague institutional problems rather than the specific political tactics being employed by the GOP to block government. It masks the real terms of the debate, playing favorably to Republicans who move forward with an anti-government agenda but elude culpability.

It is one thing to talk about how too many filibusters prevent the Senate from making decision. It is another thing to talk about how Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the GOP have taken the filibuster threat to unprecedented levels to prevent Democrats from even trying to move forward on issues like climate change.

The term is equally problematic for Republicans who avoid being more direct with the public about what they are doing. Republicans have for so long been the party with power in Washington, whether in Congress or the White House, that many conservatives have lost faith that their party really stands for anything more than holding power.

They come under constant attack for basically accepting big government. But the tactics of congressional Republicans show that the drive to undercut government remains alive and well. By grinding the legislative process to a halt, Republicans do manage to stop government from growing and bleed the government of the resources needed to run effective programs.

By hiding their actions as they too accept the talk of dysfunctional institutions, many of their most loyal supporters don't fully grasp what they have been doing. The GOP might very well lose undecided voters who see it as incapable of governance and unable to stand for principles.

Getting rid of the concept of a dysfunctional Congress would provide both sides with a much more realistic understanding of what's at stake in the battles in Capitol Hill.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT