Analysis: Why the Fiscal Cliff Proves Congress Is Dysfunctional

PHOTO: The U.S. Capitol is seen as Congress convenes to negotiate a legislative path to avoid the so-called "fiscal cliff" of automatic tax increases and deep spending cuts that could kick in Jan. 1., in Washington, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012.J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo
The U.S. Capitol is seen as Congress convenes to negotiate a legislative path to avoid the so-called "fiscal cliff" of automatic tax increases and deep spending cuts that could kick in Jan. 1., in Washington, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012.

With just hours until the deadline, President Barack Obama and Congress remain at an impasse on how to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff," which would trigger a series of tax hikes and spending cuts that threaten to damage the economy.

The fiscal cliff is just the latest example of how dysfunction in Congress has made it much too difficult to address the nation's most pressing issues. Last year, for example, the nation suffered a credit downgrade after a struggle to agree to raise the debt limit. Later that year, a congressional "super committee" failed to reach a long-term deficit-reduction agreement, which triggered the steep automatic spending cuts that make up half of the fiscal cliff.

Although lawmakers have known for nearly a year of the deadline to avert the fiscal cliff, they chose to wait until after the election to act, which has resulted in the eleventh-hour negotiations now playing out.

It may come as no surprise then that public approval of Congress is currently at a paltry 18 percent, according to Gallup, and this summer, it reached an all-time low of 10 percent.

Congress finds itself in this situation for many reasons, but a major one is polarization, which has reached a historic level not seen since Reconstruction, according to a political science metric published on With Democrats and Republicans drifting farther apart ideologically, agreement has been harder to find.

Republican Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) lamented the lack of bipartisanship when he announced his retirement this summer, saying that the partisan environment has "no longer encouraged the finding of common ground," according to The Hill newspaper.

Although the Constitution established a government designed to move at a slow pace, its inability to find common ground on much has made Congress flat out unproductive. That's not some opinion. That's a matter of fact. The 112th Congress (from January 2011 until now) has been the least productive session since the 1940s in terms of bills passed, according to a review conducted by The Huffington Post.

"American parties now resemble parliamentary parties: Party leaders crack the whip, and fewer members are willing to flout orders and compromise. The result: gridlock," long-time congressional observers Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein wrote this month in Foreign Policy Magazine.

The polarization now seen in Congress can be partly attributed to gerrymandering, where state legislatures draw lines of congressional districts that create "safe" seats for members of their own party. The last re-drawing occurred after the 2010 Census, which coincided with the 2010 election in which the Republicans performed well at the state and federal level.

Democratic congressional candidates won more than one million more votes total than Republicans in 2012, according to The Daily Beast, yet the GOP was able to retain a 33-vote majority in the House. With fewer "competitive" seats available, ideologically-rigid members are being elected instead of moderates.

Even though a divided Congress has generated record-low approval ratings for Congress, the partisan balance of power with Democrats controlling the Senate and Republicans holding the House did not change. The status quo was preserved.

According to a ProPublica investigation, Republicans redistricting efforts were bolstered by millions in corporate donations from companies such as tobacco giant Altria. Democrats also relied on corporate contributions to hold on to a hotly-contested Senate seat in the GOP-friendly state of Montana.

The results of the 2012 election and the redistricting process are likely to maintain the level of gridlock in the House of Representatives, according to a study released in November by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

"Over the next decade, Americans will likely see lower turnover of seats from one party to the other and see that the disappearance of moderate members of both parties will continue to decrease," the study says.

Should gridlock become the new norm, the possibility of a grand bargain on budgetary issues could become increasingly unlikely. And if Congress and the president can only reach a limited agreement surrounding the fiscal cliff now and are forced to take up issues like the debt limit and sequester cuts next year, that could take away time from dealing with Obama's policy agenda in a second term, such as immigration and gun violence, which he named during an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press this Sunday.