Last modified on 22 August 2010, at 19:47


The word gridlock literally refers to an extreme state of urban traffic congestion in which all available road space, including intersections, is occupied with stalled traffic, creating a hopelessly interlocked traffic jam. William Safire wrote in 1980 that

Washington credits the word to New York... According to Samuel I. Schwartz, assistant commissioner of the city's Department of Transportation, he first heard the term used around the office in 1971.... "...then, in 1980, we put it in the transit-strike contingency plan, and all of a sudden it was all over the papers."[1]

By analogy, it can be used to describe other situations in which several parties have managed to simultaneously and mutually obstruct each other.

When the American government is in the state of a divided government, Congress can enter the state referred to informally as "gridlock". This gridlock occurs when each party blocks the other party's spending initiatives, resulting in fiscal conservatism.

Many commentators suggest that gridlock and a divided government may be the best state for the United States, since each party then serves as a watchdog on the other. Statistics show that the economy grows at a higher rate during divided government than with either party in control of both branches of government. The effect of gridlock on the Republican administration of George W. Bush may have as beneficial effect on government as the gridlock of a Republican Congress on the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton.

Notes and references

  1. Safire, William (1980) On Language: Gridlocks and Givebacks, The New York Times, April 27, 1980, p. SM5