The past two years of American politics have been defined by unprecedented, bizarre events such as the Capitol riots of January 6th, the rocky Presidential election of Joe Biden over Donald Trump, and the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to causing their own issues, these events accentuated and heightened the effects of a much deeper and more systemic problem – gridlock in Congress.
Although contention and slow movement are not recently developed traits of Congress, in fact they’re by design, collaboration on the passage of bills through Congress has slowed to a standstill in recent memory. Gridlock issues flared up during the Obama administration, as Republicans in Congress vowed to undermine any compromise with Democrats at the time and make Obama a one-term presidency at all costs. This opposition peaked over the issue of Obamacare, with GOP representatives trying many times to stop, weaken, or overturn the bill despite Democrats making compromises in exchange for cooperation. The growing dissent in Congress has even led to Government shutdowns that have lasted over a month – not a new phenomenon, but they’ve certainly ramped up in the past few years. Even in the years when the Democrats controlled Congress while Obama was in office, policies tended to come out blunted or not at all.
The Trump era was similarly divided, with an administration characterized by inconsistent policymaking and unkept promises, and a Congress split down party lines. On top of this, Trump repeatedly dismantled government systems and structures, and his attempt to overturn the election results had impacts on our democracy that we won’t be fully able to understand for a long time. So, when Biden took office, many people expected the problems with our government to lessen or go away entirely. In some ways, this was the case – respecting science at a time when COVID and climate change are pressing issues, rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, and overall reversing many Trump administration rollbacks. However, since getting in office, Congress has been plagued with even further increased stalling and discord. The last Biden covid relief plan was over a year ago and smaller than Biden promised, and every subsequent bill regarding welfare has been slashed and torn apart without passing Congress despite a Democrat majority. The push for a $15 minimum wage, despite having overwhelming public support, was halted as soon as it was introduced in Congress. Similarly, the massive 2021 infrastructure bill, meant to overhaul many aspects of welfare and the economy, was reduced from $6 trillion to a mere $1.5 trillion, cutting paid family leave, college debt relief and more.
It’s hard to see these bills being reduced to nothingness and still feel that Congress has the interests of the people in mind, given the welfare programs near unanimous support. This notion is corroborated by the all-encompassing influence of corporate wealth in politics. Many of the senators who voted against the infrastructure bill, including Kyrsten Sinema, were given hundreds of thousands in donations from pharmaceutical companies and other powerful entities that do not want improvements to welfare systems, and want to keep their own profits high. It’s difficult to say whether or when the situation in Congress will improve, but it’s unlikely that it will happen while the interests of corporations are valued over the interests of citizens.