The Origin Of Gridlock?

Should the next Congress pass few bills, Michael Barone will blame electoral volatility rather than partisanship:

[T]he essence of most bipartisan compromises is that they contain provisions unpopular with constituencies of both parties and often provisions that are unpopular with a majority of voters. That’s why such measures tend to be passed by bipartisan coalitions of members with safe seats. The most recent example of that, TARP, is unsettling to those who hope to see bipartisan legislation in the years ahead; some members who voted for TARP have seats considerably less safe than was generally thought.

One example is Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss, who failed to get 50 percent of the popular vote in November 2008 and so, under Georgia law, was forced into a runoff. He won that contest, but other TARP supporters have not been so fortunate, as with the aforementioned Bob Bennett of Utah. And it has been cited by challengers to both Democratic and Republican incumbents in many states.

In such an unsettled political environment, it may be difficultmaybe impossibleto round up the votes needed for bipartisan legislation. Politicians will not be inclined to take on additional and avoidable risks. And that difficulty means that legislators in a position, whether because of expertise or committee membership, to cobble together such legislation may just conclude that it’s not worth the trouble. The Obama White House’s minimal interest in accommodating Republican ideas and initiatives, perhaps understandable in light of the temptation exerted by the existence of Democratic supermajorities, is not a positive indicator either. Policy experts can make a strong case for bipartisan legislation on major issues, but it is not clear that political actors are prepared to pay much heed to, much less act on, such arguments.

Absent large congressional majorities, therefore, it looks like we are stuck for a whilenot only, or mainly, because of ideological polarization and party sorting, but because of electoral volatility.