Americans believe that their government isn’t working. And they have good reason to do so. At present, Democrats and Republicans can’t find common ground on issues like healthcare reform, government spending, and immigration. Gridlock is the result.
Most observers blame the Senate for this dysfunction. Unlike in the House, the minority there can influence policy outcomes in several ways. Chief among these is the fact that the Senate’s rules permit a minority of its members to filibuster (i.e. block) legislation they oppose.
In theory, polarization makes it harder for senators to compromise by increasing the distance between the two parties. Senators agree on less and less as that gap widens and, as a consequence, the majority goes to greater lengths to avoid negotiating with the minority. Gridlock results when the gap becomes unbridgeable. At that point, the majority is left with no other choice but to eliminate the minority’s ability to obstruct if it wants to pass its agenda.
But in reality, the problem underlying Congress’s present dysfunction is a lack of effort, not polarization. That is, the Senate is mired in gridlock because its members are unwilling to expend the effort required to legislate successfully in a polarized environment.