Could a majoritarian Congress be more bipartisan?
John Sides has a characteristically smart critique of my Newsweek article, taking issue with my contention that "getting rid of the rules meant to ensure bipartisanship may actually discourage partisanship."
As Sides argues, we already have a majoritarian body -- the House of Representatives -- and it's anything but an oasis of bipartisanship. It's a fair objection, and one I've thought a bit about.
As you can see in this interview with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, this interview with political scientist Barbara Sinclair, and this graph tracking polarization in Congress, politicians and political scientists alike date much of the increase in obstruction and polarization to the 1990s. That was when Newt Gingrich advocated obstruction and opposition to end the Democrats' 40-year hold on the House of Representatives, and Senate minority leader Bob Dole, who wanted to run for president in 1996, happily partnered with him.
That partnership was important: The Senate is where the minority can obstruct. The House is basically a free rider. And before obstruction became very common in the Senate, the House was a much more bipartisan place.
The question, then, is whether the two things are connected, and whether ending Senate obstruction would break the House's lockstep opposition. I think there's some reason to believe that it will: It's harder to sustain obstructionism if the strategy doesn't work and the majority is just racking up popular pieces of legislation. But not impossible. It certainly happens in other countries. And you'd still have active party bases that would want "a choice, not an echo."
The point of that paragraph, though, is that you couldn't create a system with stronger incentives for polarization than this one. Majoritarianism might still feature party-line voting, but as the expected rewards to that strategy will decrease, it's plausible to think that adherence to it will decrease as well. The same cannot be said for the current regime.
One more point: Sides suggests that the entirety of my problem is with the United States Senate. My broader argument is that the system's incentives are mucked up, and I locate some of the reason for that in the rules of the United States Senate. But that isn't to say that the only problems are in the Senate.
The fact that cooperation is virtually impossible in the House means neither side has cover to escape their own interest groups or propose unpopular but necessary reforms. Changing the rules that make obstructionism effective is one of the system's few available levers, and as my argument suggests, I'm hopeful -- if not totally convinced -- that making obstructionism less appealing will have a more profound impact than simply easing the majority's path forward in the Senate. I think there's some chance that it will change party strategies. But I wouldn't bet a lot of money on it.
I also think the centrality of the president deserves much of the blame for the raw polarization of the system. But though my article argues for the necessity of seeing Congress as an institutional actor in its own right, it doesn't have an easy answer for how to make it one. The reality is that it's a lot easier to say what's wrong with our political system than it is to suggest fixes for it.
Photo credit: Melina Mara/The Washington Post..
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