Gridlock is a term that appears to have originated in New York City in the 1970’s.
To quote from Wikipedia:
The term gridlock is defined as "A state of severe road congestion arising when continuous queues of vehicles block an entire network of intersecting streets, bringing traffic in all directions to a complete standstill; a traffic jam of this kind.” The term originates from a situation possible in a grid plan where intersections are blocked, preventing vehicles from either moving forwards through the intersection or backing up to an upstream intersection….
The traditional form of gridlock is caused by traffic heading in one direction across an intersection. This traffic is then stopped, by sometimes too much capacity for the roadway or an accident, blocking the intersection. The drivers in the other direction then go into the blocked intersection trying to get through. In many jurisdictions, drivers are prohibited from entering an intersection at a green light if there is no room for them to clear the intersection. If drivers follow this rule of the road, gridlock will be prevented and traffic will only be slow in the direction that is actually congested. One method of reducing gridlock is to aggressively enforce penalties for vehicles that block intersections.
It has become commonplace for political pundits to refer to the situation in Washington as one beset by congressional gridlock.
This usage is not entirely accurate. Gridlock arises from an organic process that results in an unintended consequence.
Rather, I would characterize what we have seen in Washington the last two years as gridblock. This is identical in consequence to gridlock, but it arises as the result of intentional actions.
The most succinct statement of the intention was put forward by Senate Minority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell.
The action taken that has implemented this intention arises from the arcane procedural rules of the U.S. Senate.
Traditionally in our republic we accept the premise that popular will is implemented by majority rule, except in some clearly delineated cases (the adoption of constitutional amendments, for example).
Senate rules, however, provide for something called a cloture vote. This is a vote to end debate and bring about a vote on the motion at hand.
To be successful, a motion for cloture requires the assent of sixty of the one hundred members of the Senate. It is the mechanism that has given rise to the phenomenon known as the filibuster.
For most of 2009 the Democrats held sixty of the seats in the U. S. Senate. This resulted in a filibuster-proof majority and was the basis for the legislative productivity of the first year of the Obama Administration.
The equation changed as 2009 came to a close with the death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy and the election of Senator Scott Brown to replace him. Republicans suddenly held the one vote margin necessary to prevent a cloture motion and cause a filibuster.
The following chart illustrates the consequences in an historical context.
As the first half of the 112th congress comes to a close, there have been 48 cloture motions filed, 34 actually came to a vote and only 19 such votes were successful.
So, when the question arises, as it will repeatedly in the upcoming Presidential and congressional election year, who is responsible for things coming to a standstill in Washington, the answer will be clear. It is the Republicans.