The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

US Political Infighting and Enduring Gridlock in 2014

January 7, 2014

With a divided government and mid-term elections coming up, the United States is likely to continue to be plagued by political gridlock in 2014. Frustrated voters , Paul Saunders notes, could make next November’s election both interesting and unpredictable.

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For some, the final weeks of 2013 may appear to provide grounds for optimism that America’s politics are slowly getting back on track and that the US Congress might begin to act on key issues. Reality is likely to be considerably messier, however, and it may be wise to limit expectations for 2014.

Some have been encouraged by the fact that two-thirds of House Republicans voted for a modest budget deal that cuts spending from the Democrats’ proposal while simultaneously restoring some funds cut from the Department of Defense under legislatively mandated sequestration. Indeed, while the deal is small, it is still a meaningful accomplishment as it paves the way for appropriations legislation that will take another government shutdown off the table until 2015.

No less important, Republican Speaker John Boehner publicly attacked Tea Party–leaning political groups critical of the agreement reached by Republican House Budget Committee Chairman and former Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan and his Senate counterpart, Patty Murray, implying that they had misled Republicans in Congress. Many are encouraged by this, as they see establishment Republicans beginning to confront the Tea Party faction rather than accommodating its rejectionist political tactics.

The Senate later approved the budget after several Republicans refused to support a filibuster, another hopeful sign. At the same time, the Senate has confirmed a number of key judges and executive branch officials after Democrats revised filibuster rules to allow a simple majority rather than three-fifths of Senators to end debate and call for a vote. The move—described as “the nuclear option”—will unquestionably speed Senate action on nominations, though the new rules still require 60 votes to end debate on legislation (like the budget) and on Supreme Court nominations.

Divided Government

Notwithstanding the apparent progress on Capitol Hill, 2014 is likely to be a year of continued political infighting and enduring gridlock. First and most important, the United States will continue to have a divided government, with Democrats controlling the White House and the Senate and Republicans controlling the House of Representatives. Most House Republicans may have agreed to the budget agreement, but only after a politically painful defeat over the fall’s government shutdown. Republicans do not want another big budget fight, but may well fight the Democrats on a host of other issues.

© DonkeyHotey
© DonkeyHotey

Second, this fighting is especially probable during a mid-term election year when President Barack Obama hopes for Democratic gains that could help to cement his political legacy, when other Democrats want to take advantage of Obama’s last two years in office and prepare the ground for 2016, and when Republicans want to ensure that Obama is impotent for the rest of his term. In this environment, the Republicans and Democrats are more likely to propose controversial legislation that defines and contrasts the two parties than seek further cooperation.

Third, both sides are confident. President Obama and many Congressional Democrats appear to think they have defeated the GOP and may hope that they can force House Republicans chastened over the shutdown into submission on other measures, like a minimum wage increase. For their part, many Republicans see a White House on the defensive over the demonstrable failures of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and cannot wait to fight any expensive government programs the president may recommend. Mr. Obama’s January State of the Union address will be an important indicator of the president’s political agenda.

Fourth, both the Democratic and Republican parties are divided, something that will make it harder for either to work with the other. While Republican divisions have received considerably more attention in the media inside and outside the United States, Democrats face their own fracture between pragmatic establishment figures and insurgent ideologues frustrated that their party’s president has accomplished so little during the last five years and eager for full-scale political war with Republicans, particularly on social justice issues.

Political Dysfunction

On the Republican side, Tea Party groups are preparing candidates to challenge establishment Republicans—and some business groups, like the US Chamber of Commerce, have committed money to fight Tea Party candidates. Republicans running for reelection will have to fight hard, and carefully, to defeat insurgent candidates without alienating independent voters. Under the circumstances, they are unlikely to cooperate with Democratic colleagues on anything remotely risky.

Finally, Senate Republicans resent the Democrats’ use of the “nuclear option” and are unlikely to allow their colleagues across the aisle to forget this. Republicans’ attitudes were evident even as the Democrats pushed through vote after vote to confirm officials and judges in their offices—GOP Senators used all the time they could to delay the votes and to denounce the White House and Congressional Democrats. The Senate was in rare overnight sessions to do this, as Majority Leader Harry Reid was keen to force the most significant votes before the Christmas recess.

With all of this in mind, America’s political dysfunction is likely to be on center stage again in 2014. Thankfully, this time the country’s financial stability will not be at risk, though Americans’ patience with their leaders may well be. And angry voters on both sides could make next November’s election both interesting and unpredictable.

    • Senior Fellow in US Foreign Policy at the Center for the National Interest / President, Energy Innovation Reform Project
    • Paul J. Saunders
    • Paul J. Saunders




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