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Government dysfunction may be baked into the system

By Tom Raum

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, May 22 2013 7:05 a.m. MDT

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, following the Democratic policy luncheon Tuesday, May 21, 2013. Despite years of hand-wringing in both parties, little progress has been made toward changing congressional rules on filibusters, senatorial “holds” on presidential nominees and other stalling ploys.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The works do seem to be "gummed up" on Capitol Hill. And President Barack Obama isn't the only one to say so.

Yet despite years of hand-wringing in both parties, little progress has been made toward changing congressional rules on filibusters, senatorial "holds" on presidential nominees and other stalling ploys.

Inhibiting forward motion is the fact that all lawmakers are keenly aware that their party is always just one congressional election away from losing — or gaining — majority control.

"I'm sure my colleagues are familiar with the old adage: 'Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it,'" said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who spearheaded a largely unsuccessful effort in January to restrict filibusters.

In fact, many GOP delaying tactics now decried by Democrats were used by the Democrats themselves just a few years ago when Republicans were in charge.

Adding to the present obstacle course on Capitol Hill is a sudden rash of investigations into Obama administration steps and missteps.

Congress is taking off its legislative hat for now and donning detective garb as it rushes to probe three simmering controversies: the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups that sought tax-exempt status; allegations of a cover-up after the terrorist attack last September that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya; and disclosure that the Justice Department secretly obtained a raft of phone records from Associated Press reporters and editors in search of a leaker.

By nearly all accounts, use of congressional obstructive tactics — especially in the Senate, where debate time is generally unlimited — has been rising.

In particular, the flurry of procedural roadblocks — mostly by Republicans — have "gummed up the works," Obama says. "Right now, things are pretty dysfunctional up on Capitol Hill."

Gridlock is being reinforced by the refusal of many Republican incumbents to buck the party line on certain hot-button issues — a measure of the clout wielded by tea party activists and conservative lobbies like the National Rifle Association. GOP incumbents fret about possible primary challenges from the right in the 2014 midterm elections.

Strong GOP resistance to tighter gun-control measures, for instance, ignores polls showing overwhelming public support for more gun-sale background checks. And nearly lockstep Republican opposition to tax increases ignores wide public backing for higher taxes on the wealthy.

The legislative carnage for Obama increases even as he wrestles with damage control.

— Despite rising gun violence and the Boston Marathon bombings, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives hasn't had a director for six years. Obama's nomination of Acting ATF Director B. Todd Jones for the job remains mired in Senate GOP obstruction.

— Obama's nominations of Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Thomas E. Perez as labor secretary and Penny Pritzer to lead the Commerce Department also face stiff GOP resistance.

— Some 85 federal judgeships around the country remain vacant. (In many cases, Republican senators are breaking with tradition and refusing to even make recommendations to Obama for their own states.)

These days, hardly anything can be approved in the 100-member Senate — even commonplace measures — with fewer than 60 votes. Democrats control 55 votes at most. It takes 60 votes to overcome procedural delaying tactics and move ahead with legislation.

"Divided government in a time of extreme partisan polarization is a formula for gridlock," said congressional scholar Thomas E. Mann at the Brookings Institution think tank.

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