Will the Congressional Stalemate Ever End?

December 05, 2013

“Enough is enough,” said President Obama at a press conference on Nov. 21, the day Senate Democrats weakened the filibuster to make it harder for Republicans to block judicial nominees. “The gears of government have to work.” The president allowed himself a moment of hope that tinkering with the Senate’s rules could help unseize Washington.

Elsewhere in D.C., a group called No Labels is urging passage of 12 pieces of legislation to “make Congress work.” They include bills requiring Democrats and Republicans to sit next to each other in the Capitol, attend “monthly bipartisan gatherings,” and pass a budget before they get paid. The group’s leaders, former Utah Governor and GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, say the bills will encourage members to work together.

The president’s comments, and No Labels’ fixes, rest on two assumptions: Democrats and Republicans don’t trust each other, and breaking down barriers between them can restore enough goodwill so that they can grudgingly start passing bills again. The view that leaders simply need to lead is widely shared by the public, and with Congress approaching a series of budget deadlines in coming weeks, it would be nice if it were true. Yet individual members have less power today than ever before. Over the past 30 years they’ve largely ceded authority to the political parties, which will continue the stalemate and discourage negotiations over the budget—or anything else.

For much of the 20th century, committee chairmen were the most powerful people in Congress. They could hold up bills or bring them to a vote. In the 1970s political scientists looking at how Congress worked didn’t believe parties much mattered, because each member had a vote and a unique set of incentives. Party discipline was less important because it was impossible to enforce; interests within parties were too varied. Since the early 1980s, however, political parties have become more homogenous. Once you can get a whole party to agree on something, discipline becomes possible. Once it’s possible, it can be wielded as a weapon.

That started to happen in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill forced the chairman of the House Committee on Rules to answer to the speaker’s office, a small change with far-reaching consequences. The speaker began writing the rules for debate on every piece of legislation. After the midterm elections of 1994, the new GOP speaker, Newt Gingrich, continued the work of asserting party control. Where committee chairs had been passed down by seniority, Gingrich appointed younger members loyal to him.

Dennis Hastert, the Republican speaker during most of George W. Bush’s presidency, took this demand for loyalty further. The Hastert Rule, an informal edict not codified in any book yet still followed, instructs the speaker not to bring any bill to the floor that doesn’t have the support of the majority of the majority. When Democrat Nancy Pelosi became speaker, she got rid of earmarks, giving up the power to bribe Republicans for their votes. John Boehner has largely upheld the principle that even a passable bill, if it can’t pass by a majority of his party, is not worthy of being brought to a vote. The recent stalemates are simply the logical result of a long-term trend: The party had become more important than the House’s business.

“You should be depressed,” says Keith Poole. “It’s going to get worse.” Poole, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, has spent three decades studying congressional votes that stretch back to 1879. With collaborators Howard Rosenthal of New York University and Princeton University’s Nolan McCarty, he’s found that members of Congress are now less likely to vote against their party than at any time since the first decade of the 20th century.

The small number of seats Democrats need to take the House (17) and Republicans to take the Senate (3) makes the problem worse, says Frances Lee of the University of Maryland. She argues a minority party with a plausible chance of reversing its fortunes in the next election has no incentive to cooperate with the majority to pass legislation. “They don’t want to cut deals that will blur the differences,” she says. From the 1950s to 1980, the Republicans couldn’t imagine a majority in Congress and settled for an ability to trade votes in exchange for altering Democrats’ bills. When Ronald Reagan won the White House, Republicans won the Senate and began to dream of the House, the beginning of an increasingly ruthless competition between the parties for control of the Capitol.

McCarty is at least somewhat encouraged by the weakened filibuster. It may only address the symptoms of the larger problems, he says, “but some people can live fulfilling lives with illnesses, as long as they have the right drugs.” Lee is less optimistic. She says only one thing can force Congress to get back to legislating: One of the political parties must suffer a crushing defeat.



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