An Integrated Analysis of Congressional Dysfunction


























Hilary Smith

Dr. Adina Friedman

CONF 642 – Integration of Theory and Practice

13 April 2016



Congressional dysfunction is defined as the recent trend in congress of failing to work together for passage of bills and carrying out the normal business of congress. Showing its greatest manifestation during the Obama years, but certainly apparent in the Bush 43 years and beginning during the Clinton administration, congress has achieved the lowest congressional approval ratings ever recorded, bipartisan support of routine legislation has deteriorated into gridlock or pocket-vetoed bills, and a huge percentage of high and middle office government jobs have failed to be appointed (Beckett, 2011). This is an example of an organizational conflict and the following is an integrated analysis with recommendations for resolution.

In order to understand the present conflict, it is important to have at least a cursory understanding of the roots and current manifestations of this conflict. Lois Beckett of ProPublica describes some of the possible causes of the current gridlocked situation. In 1994, forty years of a democratically dominated congress ended when a majority of republicans were voted into office. Several scholars cite House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, and his advice to continue a perpetual campaign, as the beginning of the exceptional polarization we see today. He advised freshman representatives not to move their families to Washington DC so they could campaign at home continually. This created the Tuesday-Thursday club and reduced time representatives spent building relationships and working on bills with other members of congress. Additionally, gerrymandering and other factors have produced homogeneous districts, reduced competitive options in safe-seat districts, and further divided partisans in congress. Finally, attention has been paid to the 24/7 news cycle and C-SPAN that is correlated with an increase in Senate filibusters (Zelizer, 2015). It also may correlate with the precipitous decrease in local newspapers and readership. This discourages local reporting and local engagement on issues, hence reducing accountability to an electorate (Beckett, 2011).

This conflict can be analyzed through several different lenses, including narrative’s positioning theory, frustration-aggression, Realism, Dugan’s Nested Model, and Basic Human Needs. These analyses appear below.

Narrative – Positioning Theory

Positioning theory says that our perception of the social world is organized into narratives. Positions are moral locations inside those narratives that govern rights, obligations, duties, and even roles. Position works in concert with storyline and speech acts (actions made through speech) (Cobb, 2014). We will use positioning theory to look at perspectives from the Democratic and Republican narratives in order to understand how they position themselves and how their actions follow from those perceptions.

Congressional Republicans are not homogeneous. They can roughly be broken into Tea Party and establishment Republicans (although they could be further subcategorized). Tea Party Republicans position themselves inside of system set against them. They have issues they hold almost sacred and have been frustrated for years in meeting them (such as reducing the national debt, big government, and high taxes). They are out with a mission and a firm resolve to succeed. Even their own establishment Republicans are sometimes not supportive.

Establishment Republicans have had 40 years in the minority, most media outlets have influential liberal or Democratic leanings, and the American electorate is changing and uncertain and their base is shifting. They are balancing the powerful voices on the far right while trying not to lose face by appearing liberal or compromising in any way. In these perspectives, fear of losing face, looking weak, and losing power can lead to defensiveness and unwillingness to compromise.

From the Democrats’ perspective, self-justification and self-righteousness pervade as the view that they are simply trying to get work done but are stymied at every turn, significant and insignificant, by the other party. Republicans are to blame for the lack of cooperation and bipartisanship in Congress. Frustration reigns and acerbic rhetoric flies, driving their counterparts into an even more defensive stance. By the same token, continually being frustrated in doing the work of the Congress leads to Democrats shifting rules and procedures in order to accomplish their goals. This can turn into a vendetta of tit for tat reprisals that is not conducive to cooperation. From this position, speech acts can be escalatory and inflammatory, ending up in both parties blaming the other for dysfunction.


As positioning theory suggests, congressional sides are frustrated by the others and this can lead to aggression. Frustration-Aggression theory requires a broader understanding of what aggression looks like in order to apply to this conflict. Aggression more broadly understood, does not always denote violence, but can be acts intended to coerce or force a person, situation or organization. The Republicans’, and more extreme Tea Party, agenda have had a long absence from the majority in congress, which may have been a source of frustration for over 40 years. A preponderance of liberal media, as they perceive it, as well as a changing population producing a shrinking base can lead to disappointed expectations and frustration. Speaker Gingrich’s advice to continually campaign and fundraise and his emphasis to “focus less on actually making laws and more on being ‘a champion of the Republican cause, constantly at war, defeating Democrats’” contributed significantly to aggression and polarization in congress (Beckett, 2011). This campaign against the Democratic Party led to dysfunction and frustration on both sides. This polarization became more and more pronounced as years went on. Freshman congress people started coming into a congress where relationships across the aisle were not nurtured, compromise was less the norm, and gridlock was becoming endemic. This has led to acting out in coercive measures to frustrate the other party’s agenda in favor of one’s own. However, that cycle leads to more frustration and more aggression, hence the nosedive spiral congressional politics have taken in recent years.


Realism defines interest in terms of power. It is a zero-sum game where if one party gains power, it is at the expense of another party. Though usually applied to foreign policy, it finds application in our Senate and House. As bipartisanship declined, maneuvers in both chambers were made to stop passage of both small and large acts. Filibusters rose, bending procedural rules to favor one party over another increased, multiple amendments from a single party have been added to bills like the Affordable Care Act, ostensibly designed to kill bill passage, and blocking confirmation of judges and even mid-level bureaucrats have all happened in an effort to reduce the power of one side and increase the power of the other (Beckett, 2011). This plays into the fears of losing face and defensiveness suggested in Positioning theory, if congress persons look at their interests in terms of power, they lose power when they lose face and gain it when their opponents lose face or ar humiliated. Likewise, extreme defensiveness may be a way to hold onto power like a lifeline for fear of losing your party’s interest.

Dugan’s Nested Model

In Dugan’s Nested Model, quite a few issues could be placed in the center circle that then radiate out to affect relationships, systems, and the global environment. The issue I will chose is that highlighted in Positioning theory and Realism: Republicans’ insecurity over power in a zero-sum system. This issue of insecurity radiates out to the relationship between Democrats and Republicans in congress. It can cause friction and a vicious cycle in their relationship that leads to acts to grasp hold of power or advance one party’s agenda by whatever means needed. The shift in 1994 to a Republican dominated House and the subsequent moves to consolidate power under this rarely seen majority were motivated, at least in part, by insecurity and the method this consolidation of power took polarized the relationships in congress. As Democrats tried vying for power, the system began to be affected, with altered congressional procedures in the Senate and, under President Obama, a sharp increase in executive orders to bypass congress. Elections have become more expensive and drawn out and superpacs and other private interest firms have grown in influence, pushing constituent concerns farther from the center of the democratic process (Neuman, 2011; Beckett, 2011). This conflict is reaching an environmental and global level as America’s credit rating was downgraded due to congressional brinkmanship and inability to reliably pass fiscal policies and appropriation bills.

Basic Human Needs

Dugan’s Nested Model’s examination of Republican insecurity as a central issue in congressional dysfunction brings to mind the final theoretical lens through which to analyze this conflict, Burton’s Basic Human Needs. Burton affirms that people need security, identity, recognition, and personal growth in order to feel secure. Often people will act, sometimes irrationally, until these needs are met. Republicans may see a threat to their security as an organization in holding power, their opportunity for growth, and (especially for Tea Partiers) validation of identity. Feeling insecure on any of these fronts, Burton would suggest, makes it difficult for congress members, voters, or the party as a whole to act completely rationally until these needs are secured. Democrats too face a threat to their identity and personal growth (or manifestation of their agenda) that has been expanded significantly since Republicans started, in zero-sum fashion, to deny these securities to their counterparts in order to secure them for themselves.

Suggested Intervention

Based on this integrated theoretical approach, we can derive not only interventions, but how to apply them in order to best ensure a positive impact. Many think tanks and NGOs, staffed by former members of congress, have suggested new policies that would help alleviate congressional dysfunction. However, how these solutions would be implemented is better informed by the above integrated conflict analysis. I will talk about solutions reached in think tanks and then how to apply them using the integrated analysis.

Many solutions call for campaign reform, transparency in campaign contributions, redrawing congressional districts, and more open state primaries. Campaign reform that curtails or eliminates the influence of special interest money is vital to restoring elections to a more democratic process and simplifying the congressional floor so issues important to constituents, not special interests, are the primary focus. Measures making campaign contributions transparent, as well as limiting contributions from special interest groups would go a long way in disentangling outside interests from congress and incentivize cooperation and compromise (Lott, 2011; Neuman, 2011).

Akin to third party interests in the campaign process, the sheer amount of time campaigning outside of Washington when compared to the time legislating and building relationships in Washington is a detriment to fixing congressional dysfunction. Countering the Tuesday-Thursday club and lowering the risks for not constantly campaigning through limiting third party money and campaign season limitations (ie, only being able to actively campaign so many weeks before election) is important for reducing dysfunction (Lott, 2016).

Congressional dysfunction is also a function of gerrymandering that creates safe seats in congress and reduces viable competition in the democratic process. Gerrymandering often divides communities and follows the logic of catching the most homogenous group of voters and serves a party more than the people. More than 85 percent of congressional seats are safe seats (Andrews, 2015). There has been progress already in some states to regulate congressional re-districting and prevent gerrymandering. Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland has pushed through a measure to begin the redistricting process in Maryland, one of the worst states for gerrymandering, by setting up a three-judge panel and making districts based on an independent criteria (Governor Larry Hogan, 2015).

Finally, opening up primaries would also help in congressional dysfunction. Open or semi-open primaries would allow independents to vote, increase the democratic nature of the process, and motivate candidates to cater to all their constituents. It would also limit the effect idealogues have that tend to vote in the primaries, yet typically hold views far to the right or left of those shared by most voters (Lott, 2016; Beckett, 2011).

In all this, a more active electorate and increasing voter turnout will also pressure congress to work together and decrease dysfunction (Zelizer, 2015).

Applying these Reforms in the Current Conflict

These reforms, campaign reform, transparency in campaign contributions, redrawing congressional districts, and more open state primaries, can more successfully take root if applied using the integrated analysis above. Helping party leaders reposition themselves inside the narrative of American Democracy creates opportunity for members from both sides to revitalize the belief in and commitment to government of the people, by the people, and for the people. This motto would especially resonate with the more uncompromising Tea Party faction as all of congress would propose ways to restore the democratic nature of primaries, campaign financing, and campaign reform. Progressively limiting the power of special interest funding and re-empowering the people through a narrative campaign of revitalizing and restoring American democracy would serve as a launch pad to get these reforms airborne.

This new narrative would not only save face, but add credibility to parities and eliminate the need to be defensive against an opposing party. Rather, the enemy becomes undemocratic practices, opaque funding, and ridiculous congressional districts. With a common enemy, both parties can begin to feel their identities affirmed and opportunities for growth encouraged. The zero-sum game of Realism would be redefined as parties vs. the problems rather than party vs. party. Helping parties act in this way will also help resolve the central issue discussed in Dugan’s Nested Model of insecurity among Republicans. This view will give agency to both parties by offering an avenue to act in asserting their power and leadership. Small steps forward, like Governor Hogan’s in redrawing Maryland’s congressional districts, can also begin to disrupt the cycle of frustration-aggression. A critical mass of these steps, along with enough visibility and media coverage for them, can help reverse the momentum toward dysfunction. As the number of safe seats reduces and voters are given more viable options, the voices of the more extreme ideologues in the electorate will be moderated by attention paid to other voters. It would create a need to compromise even at the district level.

Applying this analysis to initiate these reforms will take leadership in both parties and among voters, a mutual recognition of the problem, and possibly a dose of humility on both sides to admit changes need to happen. It will also take courage against the pressure of special interest money. However, step by step, applying these reforms with this analysis in mind will assist in resolving the conflict of congressional dysfunction.



Andrews, P. (2015, January 7). Goodwill isn’t good enough to fix congressional gridlock. Retrieved April 09, 2016

Beckett, L. (2011, November 23). Our Reading Guide on Congressional Dysfunction. Retrieved April 07, 2016, from

Cobb, S. (2014, October 16). Final Functional Approaches: Positioning Theory. Lecture presented at CONF 704: Narrative and Conflict Resolution in VA, Arlington.

Governor Larry Hogan Announces Redistricting Reform Commission’s Public Meeting Schedule. (2015, September 10). Retrieved April 09, 2016, from

Lott, T. (2015, January 22). How to fix congressional dysfunction in a bipartisan way. Retrieved April 09, 2016, from

Neuman, Scott. Congress Really Is As Bad As You Think, Scholars Say. (2011, December 27). Retrieved April 09, 2016, from

ZELIZER, J. E. (2015, January 21). 50 Years Ago, Americans Fired Their Dysfunctional Congress. Retrieved April 09, 2016, from