The biggest challenge for all rich nations in recent years has been to find a way out of the recession and sustain growth, says Pietro Nivola, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. By that measure, U.S. politicians are doing a lot better than their European counterparts.
Flowers bloom at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., though the same can't be said of bipartisanship.
"Could it be that, for all the laments about America's 'gridlocked' and 'broken' political system, it actually appears to have done a better job contending with the Great Recession and its aftermath than do many other advanced democracies?" Nivola writes. "Increasingly, it looks that way."
Since the financial crisis of 2008, he points out, Congress has managed to pass the bank bailout bill known as TARP, rescue the domestic auto industry, extend the Bush-era tax cuts and pass an enormous stimulus bill. Nivola describes Congress' inability to pass more recent budget and tax measures as a "useful stasis," meaning those ideas would have done more harm had the House and Senate actually been able to agree on a course of action.
But Nivola admits to some trepidation about how Congress might respond to the fiscal challenges it faces after the November election. The combination of a fresh expiration date for the Bush tax cuts and a spate of automatic spending cuts could lead to what is variously being described as "the fiscal cliff" and "taxmaggedon."
"We haven't addressed the longer-term picture at all," Nivola said in an interview. "That's just where we seem to be paralyzed."
Nivola shouldn't worry, suggests Bill Connelly, a political scientist at Washington and Lee University in Virginia and author of the book James Madison Rules America. Congress will doubtless engage in further partisan brinkmanship — regardless of whether President Obama or Mitt Romney is its prime negotiating partner next year — but what we have come to view as hopeless gridlock is a feature, not a bug, in the American system of checks and balances, he says.
"We have a long history of running up to deadlines and crises, sometimes artificially constructed, and then we solved them," Connelly says. "Congress is like college students – they do all their work at the last minute, when the deadlines are looming."