Why the GOP Congress will be the most unproductive in 164 years

Just six months ago, it looked like the Republican Party was about to go on a legislative blitzkrieg, shredding law after law passed by the Obama administration. ObamaCare would be vaporized and replaced with a nickel rattling inside an empty Mountain Dew can. Dodd-Frank was sure to be tossed aside for a transparent giveaway to Wall Street. And Republicans would pass their regressive tax reform, their perplexing border-adjustment tax, and so much more. The GOP hadn’t held total power in American politics since 2006, and the party had become much more conservative in the interim. And instead of George W. Bush, a man who recognized at least some theoretical limits on free market fundamentalism, the new Congress would work with a sub-literate tabula rasa named Donald Trump, a man who could probably be persuaded to inject himself with experimental medication if an important-seeming person whispered “do it” in his ear.But a funny thing happened on the way to libertarian utopia. Indeed, it turns out that the GOP-controlled Congress can’t seem to pass any meaningful laws at all. Either they have forgotten how, or the divisions in their own increasingly radicalized caucus are proving too difficult to surmount. Whatever the explanation, thus far these GOP legislators are on track to be the least productive group since at least the Civil War.Now, okay, technically the Ryan-McConnell 115th Congress is so far actually a bit more active than recent Congresses, if you measure by the 43 laws that President Trump has adorned with his garish signature. Obama was at 40 at this point in 2009. George W. Bush had signed even fewer midway through 2001. But sheer number is not the best way to think about how much is being achieved. As The Washington Post’s Philip Bump pointed out, a majority of the bills signed by Trump thus far have been one page long, meaning many are just symbolic or ceremonial.Some of this very brief legislation has also been passed under the Congressional Review Act, a previously obscure statute that allows Congress to nullify recently enacted federal regulations. The CRA had been used just once before Trump took office, and yet 14 of the 43 bills signed into law by the president have been CRAs. Most of them roll back Obama-era protections against various kinds of transparent evildoing, like preventing coal mining within 100 feet of streams. They’re not meaningless, but the Voting Rights Act they are not.So what’s the holdup on important bills getting to Trump’s desk? Both Obama and Bush had passed extraordinarily consequential legislation by this point in their first terms. The Bush tax cuts were signed in June 2001, and the massive stimulus that some economists credit with preventing another Great Depression was inked by Obama in February 2009. This Congress has not yet forwarded any legislation to the president that will significantly alter the trajectory of our politics or economics. Feel free to review the whole list yourself here and argue differently, unless you think the “U.S. Wants To Compete For a World Expo Act” (H.R. 534) is going to be the subject of debate by future historians.One major problem for the GOP’s lack of progress is polarization — just not the kind you’re thinking of.Over the past few years, journalists have given significant attention to the data maintained by political scientists at the University of California Los Angeles, which tracks the ideological makeup of individual members of Congress over time. The most important finding they’ve uncovered is that over the past 30 years, congressional Republicans have become substantially more ideologically extreme, while congressional Democrats have moved marginally to the left but are not much different as a group than they were in 1980, a process known as “asymmetric polarization.” For most of the post-war period, there were Democrats who were more conservative than the most liberal Republican, and vice versa. The last time this happened in the Senate was in the 108th Congress, when soon-to-be-ex-Democrat Zell Miller sat to the right of several liberal Republicans, including Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, and future party-switching Republicans Lincoln Chafee and Arlen Specter.The slow decline of this ideological overlap has led inexorably to gridlock and dysfunction when one party controls the presidency and the other leads at least one chamber of Congress. There is is simply less to talk about. It’s not like disagreeing about whether to get a Border Collie or a Boston Terrier; it’s like if you want a dog and only a dog and nothing but a dog and your partner despises animals of all kinds.But you would think that this sorting would make for more coherent ideological blocs more capable of making policy when one party controls Congress and the presidency, as Republicans do now. That was surely what Republican voters expected when they woke up triumphant on Nov. 9 last year. But the divide within the Republican Party is proving to be as prob

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