Understanding Political Gridlock, Causes and Solutions

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. When there are more bills waiting to be voted on than being considered, gridlock occurs.

The term is a play on words, referring 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. It has been adopted by many to describe the stalemate between controlling parties.

Key Takeaways

  • Gridlock in the U.S. government generally happens when parties work against each other to block legislation until their demands are met.
  • A primary cause of gridlock is the filibuster, where a senator or group of senators use the concept of unlimited debate to stall the vote on a bill.
  • Rule 22 allows the Senate to invoke cloture—the only means to end a filibuster—which calls for a supermajority of 60 senators.

How Gridlock Works

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.

Gridlock generally occurs when politicians can't agree on the provisions of a bill. The two-party system prevalent in the U.S. encourages disagreement and legislative stalling because each party has agendas that they attempt to force on each other during the legislative process.

Both the House and Senate are rarely evenly split between parties. Each entity requires a majority to pass legislation. But, due to the stances each party takes on the issues being addressed, no agreements can be reached because no one wants to concede or compromise.

Thus, laws cannot be passed unless all parties make concessions or compromises; neither party wants to change their stance, the process stalls—and the system becomes backed up with bills waiting to be addressed or voted on.

Occasionally, bills are passed without being blocked from either side. For example, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) was passed by Congress on March 25, 2020, and signed into law on March 27, 2020. This was followed by the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, passed by Congress on Dec. 21, 2020, and signed into law on Dec. 27, 2020—demonstrating that political unification can occur.

Gridlock Tools

In addition to the political party agendas, tools like the filibuster and actions specific people can take can be used to contribute to gridlock.

The Filibuster

Political gridlock has been blamed on the Senate’s arcane voting rules. One of the issues is that the Senate was designed to allow for unlimited debate, which gives one or more Senators the right to control time on the floor. This is called a filibuster, an old political tactic used to stall or stop voting—and there is only one way to force a stop, called cloture. Cloture is the term used to refer to limiting debate on the floor; it can be introduced via a petition of 16 Senators. However, it can only be invoked by a vote of three-fifths of the Senators present, or 60 votes (for most business). Cloture is covered by Senate Rule 22.

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.”

Majority Leader Involvement

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 sent the Democrat-passed legislation off to die.

Presidential Veto

The president has the power of veto, or the ability to not approve legislation, preventing it from being enacted. If a bill is approved by the Senate and the House, and the president doesn't agree with it (or acts in the interests of the party they associate with), a bottleneck can emerge. Congress can override the veto, but it requires a majority of two-thirds of the House and Senate. However, a tactic called a pocket veto—where the president doesn't sign a bill within 10 days and Congress adjourns during that period— cannot be overridden by Congress.

Recent Gridlock History

In 2013, the Senate rewrote rules to eliminate the filibuster and end political gridlock when approving most presidential appointees. This was done primarily because Republicans blocked former President Obama’s judicial nominations. It stopped short, however, of removing the filibuster for approving Supreme Court justices. It wasn't until 2017 that measures were taken to stop filibusters for appointments for justices.

Several presidential candidates in the 2020 election called for the complete elimination of the Senate filibuster in response to the policy gridlock engendered by Senate majority leaders.

In 2023, Congress struggled to pass the federal budget because policymakers couldn't agree on whether (or how) to raise the debt ceiling. Republicans wanted to reduce some aspects of federal spending. Democrats didn't agree, so the legislative process again became gridlocked.

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 three elected bodies to agree (House of Representatives, Senate, and President) for it to become law.

How Does the Filibuster Impact Gridlock?

The Senate filibuster is a tactic that requires a special petition and 60 votes in a process called cloture to end. Since one party is unlikely to control 60 Senate seats, the party conducting the filibuster can effectively 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, shepherding bills through Congress and probing representatives 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 to coax a 60-vote Senate majority to force a vote.

The Bottom Line

Political gridlock is increasingly common in the United States due to the number of hurdles to pass legislation. In addition to the constitutional system of checks and balances, arcane practices such as a filibuster enable a small minority of actors to effectively hold up legislation indefinitely.

Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Department of the Treasury. "About the CARES Act and the Consolidated Appropriations Act."

  2. Congressional Research Service. "Invoking Cloture in the Senate," Page 1.

  3. Moncure Daniel Conway. "Republican Superstitions as Illustrated in the Political History of America," Download PDF, Pages 47-48. Henry S. King and Company, 1827.

  4. Associated Press. "Senate GOP Leader Relishes Role as ‘Grim Reaper.'"

  5. United States Senate. "Vetoes."

  6. Congressional Research Service. "Majority Cloture for Nominations: Implications and the “Nuclear” Proceedings of November 21, 2013," Page 8-9.

  7. Congressional Research Service. "Senate Proceedings Establishing Majority Cloture for Supreme Court Nominations: In Brief," Pages 1-3.

  8. Council on Foreign Relations. "What Happens When the U.S. Hits Its Debt Ceiling?"

  9. Congressional Research Service. "Introduction to the Legislative Process in the U.S. Congress," Summary Pages.

  10. Congressional Research Service. "Introduction to the Legislative Process in the U.S. Congress," Page 8.

  11. The New York Times. "Negotiating to 60 Votes, Compromise by Compromise."

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