Claiming that lawmakers in Washington are doing nothing is a fair argument. The current session of Congress is the most inactive — or nearly the most inactive — in American history. Yet, a corollary must be added to that assessment; with congressional midterm elections approaching, senators and representatives alike are working to show voters they are committed to fixing the legislative crisis in Washington. The problem is that lawmakers are not focusing on the issues most concerning voters, but delving deeper in political theater. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — who is both facing a tough reelection bid against Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and hopes to become Senate majority leader after November’s elections — has put emphasis on how he and his party will undermine Democratic goals if the Republicans gain the Senate majority. Even though that promise will not ease congressional gridlock, it will appeal to a great majority of the voters most likely to vote in November’s midterms. Typically, midterm voters tend to be older, whiter, and more conservative Americans; and those are the voters who largely make up the GOP electorate.
Congressional lawmakers campaigning for reelection have little by the way of substantive legislation to highlight as past achievements. In fact, the 113th Congress has been described as more inactive than the infamous “do-nothing Congress” of the late 1940s. Since the 106th Congress, which spanned 1999 and 2000, there’s been a steady downward trend in the volume of total and substantive legislation, according to Pew Research. This decline coincided with increasing polarization in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Pew found that even though most moderate American voters believe the logical compromise is “splitting things down the middle.” A small minority, which constitute a large share of the active and engaged electorate, say their party should “get more of what it wants in political negotiations,” meaning polarization has profoundly damaged the legislative process. The current Congress has passed just 55 “substantive measures” in 2013, which substantially less than any Congress in two decades.
Polarization has a number of features: Congress is less able to pass substantive legislation; a greater number of voters hold consistently liberal or consistently conservative views; and a growing number of those ideologically-oriented Americans have very negative views of the opposite party. The effect of these political trends is that lawmakers are more concerned with the trappings of the legislative battles than their outcomes, or in other words, lawmakers are rewarded for making partisan stands rather than pursuing bipartisan solutions to the many problems facing the United States.
Clamor over partisan politics also hides the fact that “the preferences of the average American [voter] appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy,” as a 2014 political science study revealed. But comments made several months ago by McConnell at a secret strategy conference of conservative wealthy donors hosted by the Koch brothers, titled “American Courage: Our Commitment to a Free Society,” show the extent to which the lawmaker has corporate interests at the forefront of his agenda. Both he and corporate interests want to preventing Democrats, who control the Senate and the presidency, from “using the power of the government” to silence their critics.