Ask a Scholar: Why Gridlock?

Glenn Ricketts

Dear Ask a Scholar,

Some have suggested that having a closer working relationship between branches of the government would end "gridlock" and lead to a more efficient government. Others have argued that the separation of powers was specifically created to "slow down" the pace of government to ensure cool  deliberation and not emotional reactions. What is your take on that?

- Lorie U., John Jay College

Answered by Glenn M. Ricketts, who has served as Public Affairs Director of the National Association of Scholars since 1989. He is also Professor of Political Science at Raritan Valley Community College in Somerville New Jersey, where he has taught since 1982.  He graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia and received his Ph. D in Political Science from the University of Chicago.

As frustrating as many of us often find Congressional “gridlock” – I count myself among them – it’s pretty clear that it reflects the intentions of the Framers of the Constitution.  Consider this excerpt from Federalist #51 by James Madison, who explains why the Constitution’s system of  “checks and balances" was so vital to its success: 

TO WHAT expedient, then, shall we finally resort, for maintaining in practice the necessary partition of power among the several departments, as laid down in the Constitution? The only answer that can be given is, that as all these exterior provisions are found to be inadequate, the defect must be supplied, by so contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places. 

From the outset then, tension, competition and even obstructionism among the individual branches of government have been built into the political process under the constitution.  The aim of this arrangement, Madison continues, is to provide “security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department.”  This will be accomplished, he observes further, by 

giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.   

Many readers will recognize this passage as one of the most famous and frequently quoted from the Federalist Papers, but I’d be hard pressed to find another that provides such a concise summary of the Constitution’s basic principles and the assumptions upon which they rest.  Men are not angels, which  is why we need a Constitution in the first place.  If we’re going to vest power in any department of government, we take for granted that this will always be a temptation to most of those who wield it.  And this holds true irrespective of such extraneous considerations as race, sex , social class, etc., which preoccupy so many academics at present.  Power is always a problem for one simple reason: because someone has it. When we elect our first female president, it will change nothing:  like her male predecessors, (and female monarchs such as Catherine the Great of Russia) she will hold power.   And that's really all we need to know.  

Thus, since most people who attain high office will get there by means of driving ambition, vanity or other unattractive motives, let’s design the system so they’ll have to butt heads with each other.  Given human nature as Madison describes it, we know that there isn’t going to be a great deal of selfless altruism among them.  They’re far more likely to act in their self-interest, which will include protecting themselves from their power rivals elsewhere in the government.  And as long as they “check-and-balance” each other, the rest of us are fairly safe, even if their intentions are largely self-serving..  

As your question suggests, this built- in “gridlock” can make for a very slow decision-making  process at times, but the Framers thought that it was more than a worthwhile trade-off to secure permanent protection from ambitious and non-angelic power seekers across the ages.  And given the ominous political tides which have surged elsewhere in the world since 1789, I think they were right.  Tyrants can indeed act quickly, but slower-moving republics are free.

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