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Could a majoritarian Congress be more bipartisan?

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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..

By Ezra Klein  |  March 30, 2010; 11:05 AM ET
Categories:  Congress  
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Comments

I wondered the same thing and I would expect that ending the filibuster would marginally increase bipartisanship - i.e., on health care, Snowe and Collins may have voted yes while Blanche Lincoln, Ben Nelson and maybe one or two others might have voted no.

But broadly speaking, I think large-scale bipartisanship is unlikely, simply because opposition parties don't usually reap any electoral reward for providing bipartisan support to the governing party's initiative.

Posted by: Isa8686 | March 30, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Photoshop!

Posted by: patrickbyers | March 30, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

It's simple to suggest fixes for our political system: change to a parliamentary system. Done! Sure, it would be incredibly difficult to actually do, but the fact that it's so hard means people don't even suggest it, and because nobody's suggesting it, most Americans don't even realize that it's an option, or why it would be such an improvement. But it would! That's why every time we overthrow a government, we replace it with a parliamentary system. We KNOW our system has problems, but nobody's willing to say it out loud.

Posted by: CynicalJerk | March 30, 2010 12:01 PM | Report abuse

I think a crucial issue is try and see.

The more you have, or allow, try and see, the more you can let the American public clearly see who's right and who's wrong (or who they prefer) in big disputes between the parties – and then the big dispute greatly separating the parties is decided, and it's no longer a separator.

Big example – The New Deal. The Republicans fought it tooth and nail. It was tried (because the filibuster wasn't used to stop it – the filibuster was considered something to be rarely ever used then, and senators actually had to talk non-stop, unlike today), and the American people loved it. The big fight, the big chasm, was over. The Republicans didn't support repeal for long, and moved far to the left, because the alternative was political suicide. And we had generations of bipartisanship.

Without try and see, like if the filibuster was made into a de facto regular supermajority requirement like today, the parties might be still fighting tooth and nail about whether to adopt a New Deal. But we actually tried it and that completely resolved it. The American public found the Republican lies about it were lies, and it made their lives much better.

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman has a fantastic account of this in his book, "The Conscience of a Liberal".

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | March 30, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

Two-year House terms, plus the need for House members to stock their campaign treasuries from the moment they're elected, also create disincentives for bipartisanship. Once you get to this point of the cycle, the House majority gets gunshy towards any votes that can easily be turned into attack ads.

If you wanted to get things done on tough issues, then increasing House terms might be one thing to look at -- two years is no time at all to get things done, even without the permanent campaign. You might achieve the same goal through public financing of elections with hard total caps, but that's even less likely to happen with the SCOTUS' love of corporate cash in politics.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | March 30, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

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