Our Very Unproductive Congress: Why Today’s Gridlock is Different and more Devastating

One of President Truman’s most repeated lines, the “Do Nothing Congress,” is increasingly being used less as a metaphor and more as a statement of fact. The 112th Congress was the least productive since the Civil War (figure by Political Scientist Tobin Grant). So far, the 113th is on pace to do even worse.

LawsbyCongressWhy has gridlock been so bad recently? Many blame polarization. Certainly polarization has an effect. Bipartisan agreements have become less common as ideological moderates have disappeared from the chambers. That, coupled with a Senate increasingly requiring 60-votes to pass legislation, is a big reason why stalemate has become more common in recent decades.

Polarization is important but I would argue that it should take a back seat to another explanation: inter-chamber disagreement. Research has shown that House and Senate ideological differences are probably the most important indicators of gridlock. Even in instances of unified congressional control policy differences between the chambers can significant increase gridlock. In Binder’s book, Stalemate, she illustrates that bipartisan context is the largest substantive indicator of gridlock and productivity – outperforming both polarization and traditional divided government. The further the chambers are from one another, the more difficult it is for Congress to pass bills.

This means polarization’s effect on productivity is likely to be particularly violent effect when Congress is divided. This is not the same as divided government – when one party controls the White House and the other controls Congress. Divided control of Congress is the condition we find ourselves in today: one party controls the House and the other controls the Senate.

Since 1947, there have been six Congresses with divided party control. From 1981 to 1987 (the 104th to 106th Congresses), Republicans controlled the Senate and Democrats controlled the House of Representatives. The 107th Senate was mostly controlled by Democrats* while Republicans controlled the House. And finally, the 112th and 113th Congresses are divided in the same way. Historically speaking it is rare. The five divided congresses prior to the 113th passed, on average, 27% fewer laws than congresses with unified control regardless of who controlled the White House. Furthermore, as polarization has increased, divided congresses have become less productive.

This is the big reason the last two Congresses appear historically inept. Hyper-polarized parties each control one chamber of Congress. As we have routinely seen in the 113th, laws passed by one chamber are dead-on-arrival in the other. There is virtually no agreement between the chamber on basic policy details. Gridlock is more common today than it was 20 years ago. But even by today’s standards the current levels are dismal.

Polarization matters, but it matters more in context. With split control of Congress the difference between the chambers has become immense. This, more than anything else, has made Truman’s words ring truer today than perhaps ever in our history.

(* With the exception of roughly 4 months)

Posted in Bicameralism, Legislative Politics, Polarization, Political Institutions | Leave a comment

Party Competition and the Supression of Minority Rights

Operation_Upshot-Knothole_-_Badger_001This blog post has been in the back of my mind for some time, but is especially relevant given today’s events in the Senate.  I don’t have some profound point to make, rather this is an attempt to correct a misconception about why and when lawmakers decide to suppress minority rights.  It’s a topic political scientists have written about and I think some of the lessons are prescient in light of today’s triggering of the so-called “nuclear option.”

In 1997 Sarah Binder published an excellent book on this very topic entitled “Minority Rights, Majority Rule.”  For this book Binder provides comprehensive examination of the creation and elimination of minority rights from 1789-1994, identifying and coding every formal House and Senate rules change affecting the minority over this period.  As she puts it,  her work seeks to “explain when and why each chamber took the distinctive path it did (p. xi).”

note: As Josh points out in his excellent post below, this wasn’t a formal rules change, but a change in Senate precedent.  Thus, this post is making a generalization that Binder does not make in her book.

A number of folks have wondered why Democrats would move to limit the minority’s right to filibuster the president’s nominees when they stand a good chance of becoming the minority on the future (when, presumably, they’d want the ability to block a Republican president’s nominees).  For example, Mitch McConnell noted earlier today: “Some of us have been around here long enough to know that the shoe is sometimes on the other foot…You may regret this a lot sooner than you think.”

Binder’s work gives us some answers to this question.  What she finds in her data is that changes in the rules are indeed partisan in nature.  However, the majority’s short-term partisan interests (and overall capacity) explain rules changes.  That is, rules changes come about when the majority is blocked from pursuing key political outcomes and they are ideologically homogeneous.  In my mind, that sounds like the modern Democratic party.  But perhaps most importantly, what she labels “party competition” (the likelihood the majority will be in the minority) has no effect.  That is, the subsequent changes in party control has no effect on the likelihood of minority rights suppression.

Binder concludes that these findings have the power to explain “future changes as well” (p. 3).  I’d say today’s events suggest validate her central points.

But why, exactly, is the majority unwilling to take into consideration their electoral prospects when making important rules changes?  I’d speculate Democrats assumed Republicans would “go nuclear” as soon as they regained control of the Senate.  As in a real nuclear confrontation, you want to shoot first.

Posted in American Political Development, Electoral Institutions, Filibuster, Legislative Politics | 2 Comments

The Senate Went Nuclear. Is the Filibuster on the Endangered List?

Enormous change to the Senate occurred today. By majority vote, the Senate moved to proceed on judicial and executive nominations, with the exception of Supreme Court nominations.

What you need to know:

The parliamentary tactic used in the Senate was not a rules change. It was a change in precedent on the motion to proceed. Floor process is a combination of rules – adopted and reformed by two-thirds of the chamber – and precedents – accumulated through the history of floor procedures, rulings of the chair, and motions sustained or overturned, etc. It is not uncommon for rules and precedents to compliment and, at times, conflict with one another.

Senate Rule XXII states: “And if that question shall be decided in the affirmative by three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn — except on a measure or motion to amend the Senate rules, in which case the necessary affirmative vote shall be two-thirds of the Senators present and voting — then said measure, motion, or other matter pending before the Senate, or the unfinished business, shall be the unfinished business to the exclusion of all other business until disposed of.” (Rule XXII, clause 2).

It is more important to notice what is not mentioned in this rule. Rule XXII does not mention nominations, judicial or executive. This is important because it distinguishes the lines between a rule and precedent. Rules make declarative statements. Precedents interpret the boundaries to which those rules apply.

Reid used the lack of specificity in the rule to alter precedents dictating cloture motions. The objection to the chairs ruling (that Reid’s motion was not in order) reinterpreted the precedents regarding motions to proceed on judicial and executive nominees. Because Rule XXII is vague on distinguishing the motion to proceed on bills and nominations, Democrats effectively argued that the rule was open to interpretation (the “arguments” are more often won when you have a majority). In effect, Reid used procedural ambiguity in the rules to reinterpret how cloture is invoked on nominees. Key point, this is a precedent change, not a rules change.

The Implications:

That leads to another extremely important question: can the Senate now change the rules by majority vote? In a strict sense, my guess is no. Changing the interpretation of a rule on a particular subject is far different than redefining the entire rule. In other words, my guess, as of now, is that the Senate cannot disregard the filibuster entirely without two-thirds of the chamber voting for it.

That said this is a very wonky and extremely important question: How much change would be required to trigger the two-thirds vote to change the rules? It does not take logical acrobatics to assume that Democrats or Republicans would reinterpret cloture in the same way if a Supreme Court nominee faced intense opposition. However, does the same logic apply to a motion to proceed on legislation? That is a deeper question. It’s not entirely clear where the trigger lies. You would think changing the entire rule would trigger a two-thirds vote under the rules. However, Senators themselves are responsible for upholding the rules of the chamber. Rulings of the chair are subject to appeal by the chamber. And as long as the majority rules, we cannot rule out an instance in which a newly reinterpreted precedent trumps a standing rule.

It appears the Senate’s procedural guardians are a dying breed. In a polarized Senate, the chamber may be closer to majority rule than many believe.

Posted in Filibuster, Legislative Procedure, Senate | 8 Comments

Do Veterans Decrease Polarization in Congress?

If the timing of this post doesn’t make it obvious, the use of “veteran” refers to lawmakers with prior military experience, not the length of one’s tenure in Congress.  Speaking of which: Happy Veterans Day!

Chris Day—a colleague of mine at the College of Charleston—contributed to this post.  Chris was listening to NPR’s “Morning Edition” when Cokie Roberts offered an intriguing explanation of polarization in Congress.  Chris writes:

On today’s Morning Edition, Cokie Roberts observed that only about 20% of today’s Congress are military veterans when compared to the nearly three quarters of the post-Vietnam era.  She suggested that that this decrease may account for the increase in polarization currently facing Congress.  In other words, with the exodus of those with such shared experiences, both on and off the battlefield, so departs the patter, the mutual respect, and the “getting things done together” solidarity associated with veterans.

Chris, a comparative politics scholar who writes on conflict in Africa, notes the theoretical appeal of Roberts’ hypothesis:

We like to think that on Veteran’s Day, Americans of all political varieties can come together to confer well-deserved respect upon America’s armed forces…We particularly admire the fellowship of veterans.  Indeed, recent books such as Sebastian Junger’s “War” remind us of the shared sacrifice and camaraderie so central to surviving extreme experiences in violent environments – they get through things because they get through them together. So let us not forget political polarization.  Even our reverence for military camaraderie raises interesting questions.  In making the transition from soldier to civilian, just how durable is this fellowship?  For those that continue a career in public service after leaving the military, does having such a background matter?

At the blog we’ve detailed the reasons for polarization in Congress in various posts (see here, here, and here).  But while Roberts’ hypothesis isn’t one of the “usual suspects” cited by congressional scholars, it’s certainly testable.

I’ll match the theoretical appeal noted by Chris with the empirical side of things.  According to data from the Congressional Research Service, in the 96th Congress (1979-1981) and 91st Congress (1969-1971), 55% and 75% of representatives (respectively) had past military service.  In the current Congress, by comparison, only 19.9% of representatives previously served in the military according to the data collected for this post.  Now on its face, this supports Roberts’ claim, as military service has declined more or less linearly along with polarization.  However, we’re risking an ecological fallacy here, so we better check the individual-level data.

In the forthcoming analysis, “Polarized”—the dependent variable—is measured as the absolute value of a lawmaker’s DW-Nominate score.  The data is for representatives serving in the 112th Congress.  “D_Polar” represents the polarization of a lawmaker’s district using the absolute value of Obama’s two-party vote share in 2012.  The variable “Party” is coded 1 for Republicans and 0 for Democrats.  And finally, “Military” is coded 1 for representatives with prior military experience and 0 otherwise.

A multivariate regression model is reported below.  Overall, the model performs well, explaining 47% of the variation in polarization in the 112th House of Representatives.  We find (not surprisingly) that Republicans and representatives from partisan-leaning districts are more ideological than Democrats and representatives from moderate districts.  However, and most importantly, military service has no statistically significant effect on polarization in Congress.  The coefficient on military service is negative—consistent with Roberts’ suggestion—but insignificant (p=.27).  Thus, contrary to Cokie Roberts’ hypothesis, veteran lawmakers are no more or less partisan than their non-veteran brethren.  While her hypothesis has some intuitive appeal, and it’s supported by aggregate trends, the effect isn’t borne out when we look at the roll-call record.


Posted in Empirical Theory, Legislative Politics, Polarization, Voting Behavior | Leave a comment

How Likely is an Overthrow of the Speaker?

In the wake of the CR and debt limit debates, some are asking if Boehner will lose his job. I have a post over at the GAI blog outlining the likelihood of various scenarios.

Posted in Legislative Politics, Quick Hit | Leave a comment

What’s Missing in the Polarization Debate? Congress.

Currently, the debate over American polarization is dominated by electoral considerations: gerrymandering, sorting, PACs, campaign finance, etc. Most of these arguments are based on underlying assumption that the American people, or a political process that sorts voters into districts, are driving polarization. For the most part this is true. However, the effect is also hugely overstated. Gerrymandering has an effect, but it is small. Sorting has an effect, but it is also small. What is more perplexing is these explanations fall apart when considering polarization in the Senate. For one, the Senate cannot be gerrymandered. Also, if voter sorting was the primary cause of polarization, then one would have a difficult time explaining the voting histories of Louisiana’s Senators Vitter (R) and Landrieu (D) or Nevada’s Reid (D) and Heller (R). I want to be clear, electoral factors clearly affect polarization. However, they are also not the underlying reason the parties are so far apart.

Focusing too myopically on voters and elections has pushed out other explanations. The major factor often left out in this debate is Congress itself. Recent research shows that polarization is primarily an institutional problem. The current legislative process incentivizes partisan polarization. Sean Theriault’s research on polarization estimates that the modern legislative process (and its counterpart in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) accounts for over 70-percent of measured voting polarization in the House and 60-percent of measured voting polarization in the Senate.

How is that possible? Congressional polarization is a combination of procedural organization and political incentives. Today, the majority party leaders, particularly the Speaker, dominate the procedural landscape. While Boehner may be a poor leader to his membership, when it comes to floor scheduling, amendments, and debate, he rules the roost. The current Speaker appoints the Republican members directly to the Rules Committee (Democratic leader “nominates” members to the committee, who are unceremoniously and uncontroversially approved by the caucus). As a result, the Speaker has immense influence over the decisions made by the Rules Committee. If Rules members don’t follow his lead, he can simply replace them with somebody that will.

This is vital because the Rules Committee determines: which bills are considered on the floor (aka, what has the opportunity to be law), which amendments are in order (if any), and the terms of debate. By directing the Rules Committee to issue a rule, Boehner determines the policies and votes in the House. Of course, there is a lot of informal influence and negotiating behind the scenes. Members can pressure the Speaker, get in his/her good graces, or pursue other means to ensure floor action on their bill. But as far as actually pulling the lever, Boehner effectively controls access to the floor.

This process effectively marries the goals of the Republican Party with the legislative process of the House. As the party’s congressional leader, the Speaker has a responsibility to his partisan members. And it is important to note, not all legislative goals are policy goals. In many, if not most cases in the current Congress, votes taken on the floor are political. In other words, they are meant to distinguish the two parties rather than create good public policy. In other words, opportunities to make the opposition party look bad are just as likely to receive votes as those that create good policy. (This example is about the House but the Senate is also guilty of this, just in a different way.)

To make this clearer, let’s consider the story of eight derivatives bills passed in the 113th House. In May, the House Financial Services Committee held a markup for eight derivatives bills. Most, though not all, reformed pending or not yet in place portions of Dodd-Frank Act, the 2010 financial reform bill. Seven out of the eight bills flew through committee without much resistance, passing the committee with fewer than 11 votes in opposition out of a total of 60 votes (in fact, most passed with fewer than 6 votes against). Only one, H.R. 1062, the SEC Regulatory Accountability Act, drew a straight party line vote. All Republicans voted in favor. All Democrats voted against. Guess which bill was scheduled for floor action first? H.R. 1062. Rather than pass any of the other bills that would likely receive bipartisan support on the floor, the House leadership scheduled the one bill that divided the parties completely.

The moral of the story is scheduling votes is often a partisan act. As Frances Lee illustrates, party leaders have several incentives to wage partisan war. Therefore, the act of voting is more than just policy. By passing H.R. 1062 first, the Republican leadership sent a signal to those affected by the bill who was on your side and who was not. Therefore, H.R. 1062 was a vehicle to differentiate themselves from Democrats.

In short, legislative process enables the parties to wage partisan wars, not just policy wars. This not only helps explain why the parties diverge more in eras where process empowers party leaders, it also explains the votes taken during the current stalemate on the debt ceiling and CR. In both chambers, leaders are looking for negotiating leverage. This is just one reason why the House passed several mini-CRs for popular programs and departments and the Senate has continually requested a budget conference. It makes political sense even if it doesn’t make policy sense.

Legislative process is arguably the backbone to today’s polarization. A more thorough explanation could undoubtedly speak about the social, media, and other auxiliary effects of congressional polarization on American politics. There is no question they are extensive and substantial. However, the main caveat is that Congress is not the only cause. Elections reinforce this dynamic. Safe Republican and Democratic districts create few incentives to work across the aisle. Additionally, safe districts also make it more likely that extreme candidates emerge from the primary process. So while the process is not the only cause, it is measurably the biggest. The current process enables partisan strategy. And as a result, our voting indices that measure polarization reflect the scheduling and procedural (or tactical) votes that distinguish the parties rather than unite them.

How Congress schedules votes and makes laws should be a centerpiece in the polarization discussion. While it is not the only cause, it is arguably the most important factor that is driving today’s partisan division.

Posted in Electoral Institutions, Legislative Politics, Legislative Procedure, Polarization | 2 Comments

Voting Against the Debt Limit Is for Losers!

Greg Koger at the political science blog Mischiefs of Faction has an interesting post this morning entitled “Fiscal Conservatism is for Losers.”  In his post, Koger uses data from DePaul professor Wayne Steger which records “fiscally conservative” keywords used by the National Review (a conservative magazine) from 1994 to 2012.  The keywords include things like “balanced budget,” “cut spending,” and “cut taxes.”

Steger - cut spendingI’ve included the figure for “cut spending” at the right.  The conclusion of the aptly-titled post is that the National Review seems to care more about “fiscal conservatism” when Democrats are in power (and by extension, discussion of cutting spending takes a backseat when Republicans are in power).  And no, the answer isn’t that Republicans are simply more fiscally conservative when controlling the purse strings.

Ok, but that’s just, like, one conservative organization.  Do we know if lawmakers are similarly hypocritical when it comes to spending?

For this post, I examined three distinct roll-call votes in both the House and Senate on raising the debt limit.  On October 17th the United States will crack the so-called debt ceiling, so one of these votes is in our future (at least, most of us hope so).  But what should we expect in the pending debt ceiling vote?  And why are Republicans so against raising the debt limit?  Is it just that they’re fiscally conservative?

Notably, the votes examined in this post are “clean” in the sense that there aren’t extraneous provisions included in the bill.  Most importantly, the votes occurred during three district periods: (1) in 2009 when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, (2) in 2004 when Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress, and (3) in 2001 when both parties controlled Congress.  The bills are 111 HR 4314, 108 S 2986, and 107 S 2578.

Here’s the results of a logit analysis (1 vote for increasing the debt limit, 0 vote against).  I tested three independent variables: if a lawmaker was in the majority, ideology, and chamber.  In the 107th Congress, Democrats are coded as the minority given that the President was a Republican.  This helps us apply the results to the current Congress.


Who votes for increasing the debt limit?  Lawmakers in the majority.  In other words, voting against the debt limit is for losers!  Specifically, lawmakers in the majority have an 89% probability of voting to raise the debt limit.  By the way, this applies to both Democrats and Republicans.  Notably, Barack Obama voted against raising the debt limit when he was in the Senate while Mitch McConnell and John Boehner voted to increase the debt ceiling when they were in the majority.

What about ideology?  Despite the conventional wisdom that conservatives are “fiscally prudent” and are more likely to oppose increasing the debt limit for principled reasons, there’s no evidence of that.  Conservatives vote to increase the debt limit just as often as liberals.

What’s perhaps most interesting about the results are the House and Senate differences.  Controlling for the above, we see that representatives are less likely to vote to increase the debt ceiling than senators.  Why would this be?  Well, senators are insulated from public opinion because of their staggered six-year terms.  Voting to raise the nation’s borrowing limit is unpopular.  Thus, representatives have more to fear in voting to raise the debt limit than senators for the simple reason that they’re constantly up for reelection.

With respect to the current debt limit showdown, the results highlight the challenge facing Congress (but mostly, the House).  In particular, because Republicans are the minority (in this analysis), and because they control the chamber with all 435 members up for reelection, getting a majority to support a debt limit increase in the House is going to be particularity difficult.  Stay tuned…

Posted in Bicameralism, Legislative Politics, Voting Behavior | 7 Comments