Does Congress promote partisan gridlock?
Some of the most talked-about issues in Congress these days are not about the substance of policies or bills being debated on the floor. Instead, the focus is on the partisan conflict between the parties and the endless debate about whether individual members of Congress will break with party ranks on any particular vote. This behavior allows the parties to emphasize the differences between them, which makes it easier to court donors and hold voter attention.
Some amount of competition between the parties is necessary in a healthy democracy, but have things gone too far? Frances E. Lee joins us this week to explain.
Lee is jointly appointed in the Department of Politics and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, where she is Professor of Politics and Public Affairs. She is the author of Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign and the forthcoming The Limits of Party: Congress and Lawmaking in a Polarized Era with James M. Curry.
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Frances’s book, Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign
This episode was recorded at WPSU’s studios and engineered by Andy Grant. It was edited by Chris Kugler and reviewed by Emily Reddy. Additional support from Democracy Works interns Nicole Gresen and Stephanie Krane.
[8:28 ] How did we get to the current situation Congress?
So we are in a remarkably competitive period in terms of our two-party politics. Now, we’ve been in this era for a long time so that people have sort of come to take it for granted that this is how Congressional elections work that the majority’s in play every two years in the House, and potentially in the Senate. If you reflect back on congressional history, you’ll see that that this is not normal. The Democrats were the majority party in Congress for roughly 50 years in the 20th century between the Great Depression and 1994 in the House of Representatives and 1980 in the Senate.
There was not speculation in the lead up to the 1980 elections that Republicans might take the Senate majority. But when the votes were counted, they did. The same was true in 1994. It was not expected for that Republicans would win in 1994. There was a great deal of complacency about Democrats retaining control, as you might expect considering that it had been more than a generation of the Democrats being in power.
[11:30 ] What roles to the majority and minority parties occupy in Congress?
The American system fragments power to such an extent that there is always ambiguity about who really is in power. Having a presidential election occur separately from Congressional elections means that we regularly have an outcome where you have one party in control of the Executive Branch and the other party in control of Congress. A party may not have full control of Congress, they may have a majority in one chamber but not a majority in the other. And then, of course, there’s always the question of the Senate where a simple majority is not enough to govern in the Senate. One might even ask, does any party ever really have control of American government? It’s a fair question and the answer is not very often.
[14:13 ] How do the parties talk about compromise and conflict?
Party messaging does go out in public and say, “Look at all these great deals that we’ve cut with the opposing party. That, you know, we sat down and worked out things in a reasonable basis, and here’s what we produced working cooperatively together.” That is not how party messaging plays out. The party not in power wants to say that the party in power is doing a bad job. How can it say that if it’s taking credit for accomplishments that were bipartisan? So, it has to say what the majority wants to do is bad, and their agenda is misguided or wrong. They’re continually criticizing one another and party messaging is disproportionately negative.
[20:05 ] Does the increase in party conflict affect the number of bills Congress passes?
The number of bills has come down, so the number of individual laws is less than it was before this highly partisan, closely contested era got underway. But the bills that passed these days are much longer, so they are more omnibus in character so that if we look at the total number of legislative pages enacted in a Congress, it’s not less than it was in the 1980s. So what you tend to see is relatively few bills going through navigating this grueling process, but they pack a lot into them.
[22:55 ] How does party conflict impact trust in Congress as an institution?
They are cognizant of the low level of trust in Congress and it has provoked some reform effort. Right now, there is a select committee on the modernization of Congress, which, you know, sees its mission as to take action to improve public, trust in, in Congress. But these institution-wide incentives are not as powerful as the incentives to gain or maintain majority control. So the second set of imperatives are more driving of behavior. They’re more important to party leaders, to donors. The power struggle takes precedence over these institutional considerations. But the institutional considerations are something they care about.
[24:37 ] What, if anything, would need to happen to shift this paradigm?
You’d have to have one party win firm grip on power, so that the other party doesn’t see an immediate path back in. That would reduce incentives for constantly messaging and seeking a political angle to impeach the performance of the party in power. It would reduce the focus on partisan politics if key questions about which party the public trusted with power were sort of settled. But there’s no sign of that happening. So it really boils back down to the public’s views of the parties. And neither party in American politics is a majority party. They’re both minority parties. And when one party wins power it tends to generate a backlash against that party in power because the public simply doesn’t trust either party with power.
[27:10 ] Would things be better if member of Congress from opposing parties interacted more socially?
What I hear from members and former members is a complaint about not being able to get to know people from across the aisle. They don’t have time. They’re not in Washington very much and when they’re there, they have to meet with constituents or with their party caucuses. And then there’s fundraising, so there’s just not much chance for them to get to know each other. I’ve heard former members complain about how hard it is to be seen as friendly to the other side. To go to dinner is something that can get you in political trouble. Somebody takes a picture, Tweets about it and your constituents see you shaking hands or being friendly and negative feedback in terms of calls coming into the office. I think they feel constrained by their supporters in the electorate to seem more hostile, maybe, than they actually feel.
[28:48 ] Can individual voters do anything to change the situation in Congress?
Voter preferences do make a difference. Now, the individual voter that’s a high bar. But what voters want does restrict what parties do. Republicans struggled to repeal the Affordable Care Act because it was not seen as the popular thing to do. Republican states have expanded Medicaid in wake of the creation of the Affordable Care Act. Even though their voters never approved of Obama, the policy was popular. And so you’ve seen a steady growth in the number of states that have done this. So, there’s a responsiveness of both parties to what voters want. It’s hard for them to buck what voters want, to the opposite of what voters want.