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Editor's Note: Gridlock Stops Progress at State and Federal Levels

Dana Heupel
NPR Illinois

Now is the time when many publications proclaim their choices for “___ of the Year.” My pick for the 2011 word of the year is “gridlock.”


Gridlock is no longer just what motorists experience at rush hour; it’s also the inability of the federal and state governments to initiate potential solutions to the most critical problems of the day.

In the federal government, we’re talking primarily about the failure to reduce the national debt. Despite the appointment of several study commissions — the most recent being the congressional supercommittee that didn’t meet its November 23 deadline to cut the deficit by $1.2 trillion despite dire consequences — the total national debt has topped $15 trillion and is still climbing, according to usdebtclock.org. And the battle over extending a Social Security payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits was coming down to the final days before they were to expire.

At the state level, it’s mostly the inability to balance the budget, eliminate the backlog of Illinois government’s unpaid bills, reduce the unfunded liability of state pension systems and jump-start the local economy. As an example of state government’s inability to deal with issues, the General Assembly called an unscheduled session in late November primarily to enact a tax break for Sears Holding Co. and the CME Group, which operates the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Although both chambers are controlled by Democrats, legislation intended to keep the two businesses in Illinois passed the Senate by a resounding, veto-proof 36-16 vote but failed astonishingly in the House, 8-99. As of this writing, lawmakers were scheduled to try again in another session.

Add the stalemate in the legislative branches to their squabbling with the executive branches at both levels, and you have the recipe for gridlock.

Dick Simpson has been observing government for a long time as head of the political science department at the University of Illinois Chicago and, in the past, as a two-term Chicago alderman.

“Essentially, we’re in a time of constricted resources,” he says, “and the political bases for both the Democrats and Republicans have polar views about what needs to be done in general. The Republicans believe that we ought to give more tax relief and money to the businesses and the wealthy, and that will help the economy, but that we need to cut the budget on everything else so that we still keep a balanced budget. The Democrats believe that, essentially, we need something like the stimulus programs, where government’s investing, even if the deficit is running up some, because when the economic recovery comes, then the problems of the deficit will be solved at that point. And if we go into further recession, we’re going to be worse off. And it’s the extremes of the parties — particularly the Tea Party for the Republicans and the pledge of no new taxes — and they’re both vying for advantage in the upcoming 2012 presidential and congressional elections at the national level.”

Of course, the contentiousness is nothing new; partisan politicians have always had their hands clenched around the necks of those on the other side. But what’s unusual this time around is the seemingly non-negotiable gulf between the sides and the refusal of both to compromise their ideological principles, regardless of the damage their intransigence is doing to their constituents.

The result is unacceptably high unemployment, declining middle-class incomes and, at the state level, a backlog of nearly $7 billion in unpaid bills, according to the Associated Press, that is forcing businesses and nonprofits that contract with the state into financial ruin. Gallup and other polling organizations find that confidence in elected officials is at or near record lows.

“At important times in history, we were able to move forward and to get both sides — whether they were Federalists or Whigs or Democrats or Republicans — to work together toward programs that were necessary,” Simpson says. “It used to be that someone like an Everett Dirksen from Illinois, as an example of a Republican, would be willing to compromise and find a middle way. ... There were more moderate Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the aisle who could fashion a compromise that would work.”

At the state level, he says, “you’ve got a different situation. Essentially, you have dysfunctional politics, and it’s driven by two things:

“First, the extreme budget deficit in the state, which you get different estimates about, but the immediate structural deficit is somewhere in the vicinity of $8 billion, even after the income tax increase — it was closer to $13 billion to $15 billion before the increase. And, of course, the larger problem with pension debt and the rest is way beyond the size of the state budget. Essentially, the cost of the debt and the pensions is going to be greater than the state budget in a few years. So that puts enormous pressure.”

The second driver for dysfunction, Simpson says, is that leadership of both caucuses in both chambers of the legislature —“the Four Tops” — has “become so strong under the nonexistent campaign finance rules in the past that they have total control over their membership, particularly on the Democratic side. And they don’t agree with the governor, so they can’t use that control to just ram through a consistent program. So you’ve got a deadlock that’s created in a single party, and the individual legislators are helpless to do anything about it because they’re too beholden to the leaders.”

Also partially to blame for the stalemate in the state, Simpson says, is the 1980 Cutback Amendment to the Illinois Constitution. It eliminated cumulative voting — where each legislative district had two members of one party and a third member of the other. “It makes it much harder to create — even at the state level — a compromise,” he says, because “that moderation has disappeared.”

Voters control the future, Simpson says. At the federal level, “both sides have to find some moderate folks that are being elected, that can help fashion a compromise, particularly on the big issues and particularly on the domestic issues.” As for state government: “Much like with the need to elect some different congressmen, I think you’re going to have to have the electorate begin to put pressure by withholding their votes or by defeating candidates if the state doesn’t correct course.”

Even accounting for the political redistricting that occurs every 10 years, he says, “there’ve been more retirements this particular year, coming up to the next election, than I remember in the last two decades in state politics. More legislators — representatives and senators — and more senior legislators retiring because the frustration of not getting anything done is great. And the frustration among the voters is even higher.

“I really think that at some point, there will be a voter revolt in this state,” Simpson says.

If voters don’t see the gridlock dissipating and their lives improving, that revolt may well begin in this year’s national elections and continue into next year’s state contests.

Illinois Issues, January 2012

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