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LEGISLATING IN POLARIZED TIMES

Sarah Binder
George Washington University
The Brookings Institution
Today’s questions

• Why does Congress struggle to legislate?

• What can we expect in Trump’s second (and now


divided) Congress?
Congressional Pathologies

• Electoral
• Partisan
• Institutional
Lawmakers as “single-minded seekers of re-election”

• Re-election is always the proximate goal

• Shapes lawmakers’ and leaders’ behavior

• Voters reward positions, not outcomes

• Implications

• Lawmakers take credit and oppose unpopular measures


• Avoiding (or generating) blame is name of the game
• Power of party leaders constrained
Party polarization 1879-2016
Ideological map of the 115th House (2017)
Murkowski

Collins
Index of partisan balance (presidency, House, Senate)
30.00
New Deal
Post-1980

20.00

Post-Reconstruction era Dem


10.00 majorities

0.00

-10.00 GOP
majorities

-20.00

-30.00

-40.00
1901

1985
1861
1865
1869
1873
1877
1881
1885
1889
1893
1897

1905
1909
1913
1917
1921
1925
1929
1933
1937
1941
1945
1949
1953
1957
1961
1965
1969
1973
1977
1981

1989
1993
1997
2001
2005
2009
2013
2017
Institutional pathologies
• Very few minority rights in the House

• Very many minority rights in the Senate


Rise in the “60-vote” Senate
Senators’ policy views in less polarized era
51st senator

60th senator

Liberal < ------------------------------- moderate ----------------------conservative


Senators’ policy views in a polarized era
(with conservative president)

51st senator
60th senator

Liberal < ----------------------------- moderate ------------------------conservative


% deadlock

0
10
20
30
40
50
on salient issues 60
70
80
1947-48
1949-50
1951-52
1953-54
1955-56
1957-58
1959-60
1961-62
1963-64
1965-66
1967-68
1969-70
1971-72
1973-74
1975-76
1977-78
1979-80
1981-82
1983-84
1985-86
1987-88
(1947-2016)

1989-90
1991-92
1993-94
1995-96
1997-98
1999-2000
2001-02
2003-04
2005-06
2007-08
Frequency of legislative stalemate

2009-10
2011-12
2013-14
2015-16
Governing challenges in 2019
• Parties remain polarized and competitive

• Unpopular president (undisciplined, impulsive) faces


split party Congress with slim (sometimes divided)
majorities

• Bipartisan deals are possible when both parties


judge costs of saying “no” are too steep

• Race for the White House sometimes encourages


both parties to go to the bargaining table ... but ....