What Is Gridlock?

Gridlock is the 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.

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.

Understanding Gridlock

In the United States, government shutdowns have increased fears that a dysfunctional Congress is in a near-permanent state of 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.

The U.S. House of Representatives generally requires only a simple majority to bring a bill to the floor and pass it. Take the 2019-2021 House, elected in 2018, 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.

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.”

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.

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.