What Is Gridlock?

Gridlock is the political stalemate that occurs when the government is unable to act or pass laws because rival parties control different parts of the executive branch and the legislature.

The term refers to the phenomenon of traffic gridlock, a circumstance in which traffic is unable to flow through an intersection because of the number of vehicles trying to get through.

Key Takeaways

  • Gridlock in government happens when control of both houses of Congress and the presidency is split between Republicans and Democrats.
  • A primary cause of gridlock is the filibuster rule in the Senate, which calls for a supermajority of 60 senators to bring a bill to the floor.
  • Traditionally, both parties have been wary of altering the filibuster because at some point each will be in the minority, but this has been changing in recent years.
  • Gridlock also occurs during debt ceiling negotiations, in which the minority party seeks to delay government funding in order to extract concessions.
  • The senate filibuster can be overturned at any time with the support of 51 senators. The last time this happened was in 2017, to expedite President Trump's Supreme Court nominations.

Understanding Gridlock

In the United States, government shutdowns have increased fears that a dysfunctional Congress is in a near-permanent state of political gridlock that threatens American democracy. Congress is considered gridlocked when the number of bills passed by the Senate slows to a trickle, even though there is a packed legislative agenda.

Political gridlocking usually occurs when the U.S. House of Representatives is controlled by a different party than the Senate, since both Houses are required to pass legislation. The House of Representatives generally requires only a simple majority to pass a bill, but the Senate requires a 60% supermajority, giving the minority party effective veto power.

Take the 2021–2023 House, elected in 2020, as an example. Controlled by the Democrats, it passed bill after bill to advance policies favored by the party. However, none of these bills were taken up by the Republican majority in the Senate.

Gridlock and the Filibuster

This political gridlock has been blamed on the Senate’s arcane voting rules, especially the filibuster, which requires 60 votes before legislation can be brought to the floor. If the Senate majority leader can get agreement from all 100 senators to move forward on a bill, it can take up to three days to get the agreement to start working on the bill and several more days to finish things up—and that is when things run smoothly.

First President George Washington told Thomas Jefferson that the Senate was intended to be more contemplative and less hot-headed than the House, saying, “we pour our legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”

Congressional Gridlock

The Senate majority leader can also gridlock politics. Former Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called himself “the grim reaper” because, by refusing to bring bills before the Senate, which is within his power as defined by the U.S. Constitution, he sends the Democrat-passed legislation off to die.

Solutions to Gridlock

There is little bipartisan agreement on how to overhaul these rules and eliminate such policy gridlock. Previous talks have focused on getting rid of the 60-vote threshold for appropriations bills, in part because the last time all 12 required appropriations bills were passed by the start of the new fiscal year (Oct. 1) was in 1996.

Another idea is to make the threshold for considering spending bills a simple majority, to prevent the minority party from blocking appropriations bills from debate. It would still require 60 votes to end debate and pass a measure. However, no agreement has been reached regarding spending bills, as both parties are mindful that any changes that restrict the power of the filibuster could hurt them when they become the minority.

Budget reconciliation enables certain high-priority fiscal legislation to pass with only 51 votes but is subject to strict rules and significantly limited.

Nevertheless, in 2013, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, rewrote the Senate rules to get rid of the filibuster and end political gridlock when approving most presidential appointees. This was done primarily because Republicans were blocking former President Barack Obama’s judicial nominations.

Reid stopped short, however, of removing the filibuster for approving Supreme Court justices. It took Senator McConnell to do that, in 2017, in order to confirm former President Donald Trump’s nomination of Neil M. Gorsuch to the highest court in the land. It was then used again to elevate Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barett to the bench.

The Senate filibuster rules can be altered at any time with the support of 51 senators. The last time this happened was in 2017 when Mitch McConnell eliminated the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations.

A number of Democratic presidential candidates that ran in the 2020 election called for the complete elimination of the Senate filibuster, in response to the policy gridlock engendered by McConnell and Senate Republicans. In August 2019, Reid, no longer in political office, weighed in with an op-ed in The New York Times supporting that position.

Gridlock FAQs

What Is Political Gridlock?

Political gridlock is a procedural stalemate that occurs when no political party has enough power to enact legislation or fund appropriations. In the U.S. gridlock is increasingly common because legislation requires the agreement of three elected bodies (House of Representatives, Senate, and President) to enter into law.

How Does the Filibuster Impact Gridlock?

The Senate filibuster is a rule that requires the agreement of 60 senators for a bill to be passed. Since it is extremely unlikely for one party to control 60 senate seats, the minority party is effectively able to veto legislation at will.

How Does Congress Pass Legislation When There Is Gridlock?

In cases of extreme political gridlock, such as debt ceiling negotiations, leaders from the two parties will attempt to negotiate an agreement in exchange for favorable votes on other issues. Party leaders from the majority party may also try to coax Congressional votes away from the other side, in exchange for local concessions.

What Can the President Do About Congressional Gridlock?

Although they have no formal role in Congressional negotiations, the President often acts as a dealmaker-in-chief, shepherding bills through Congress and probing Congresspeople to determine how they are inclined to vote. For example, the Affordable Care Act required months of negotiations, in which President Obama met with conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans in order to coax a 60-vote Senate majority.

The Bottom Line

Political gridlock is increasingly common in the United States, due to the number of hurdles required to pass legislation. In addition to the constitutional system of checks and balances, arcane procedural rules such as the Senate filibuster enable a small minority of actors to effectively hold up legislation indefinitely. Although support for filibuster reform is increasing, it has so far been unable to win over the necessary majority of senators.