Two Ways to Be a Do-Nothing Congress
Today’s congress is viewed by the public with minimal high regard (to borrow a phrase from the ever-polite former Speaker of the House, John McCormack). Really minimal. The institution’s approval ratings have been abysmally low for months—lower than their usual low—with a mere 12% of the public approving of the job Congress is doing.
At a political science conference in Chicago last week, I was graciously given the opportunity to serve on a roundtable panel to discuss the current congress. One of my fellow panelists, Scott Adler, observed that people expect Congress to do things, and yet this congress has struggled to pass even routine legislation. It should come as no surprise that so many people scorn the place.
The most obvious reason why Congress has been so unproductive is that party control of government is split: Democrats have a majority in the U.S. Senate and hold the White House, while Republicans control the U.S. House. Looked at this way, all we’re seeing is the consequence of a constitutional system that permits voters to select some, but not all, occupants of elected offices in the national government. Thus, we sometimes get divided government and, as the political scientist Sarah Binder has shown, a drop in legislative output.
But in some ways, this implies that both parties actually want to pass legislation, yet are being stymied by their political opponents. What if neither party is even trying? In fact, this is exactly what is happening. It appears that Senate Democrats and House Republicans not only anticipated the problems inherent in divided government, but also figured that more would be lost than gained by genuinely trying to enact new laws. Accordingly, each chose a different strategy that ensured nothing substantive would be enacted.
Let’s look first at House Republicans. During the panel discussion in Chicago, the congressional scholar David Rohde pointed out that the House has been voting on a lot of amendments to enact elements of the conservative agenda (particularly cuts to certain federal spending programs). From the perspective of symbolic politics, the strategy makes sense: it appeases the unruly freshmen in the party; it throws bones to the conservative/Tea Party activists who helped the G.O.P. win control of the House; and it could help maintain the momentum generated by the Republicans’ huge 2010 election victory. It also jibes with David Mayhew’s important observation that individual legislators will find more electoral success in position-taking than in legislating.
Position-taking voting is fine so long as it doesn’t take up too much time, or some decent amount of legislation is still passed that has a chance of becoming law. This is part of the “institutional maintenance” function of lawmakers and committees that Mayhew argued was essential to overcome the selfish, risk-averse instinct of legislators. Sadly, this appears not to be happening in the House. Instead, Republican Party leaders seem willing, if not eager, to consume the House’s schedule with lots of votes for party members to show their conservative bona fides. And unrealistic bills that reflect the party’s preferences (like repealing Obama’s health care initiative, or dramatically revamping Medicare) are guaranteed to arrive D.O.A. at the Democratic Senate (not to mention, if they require the president’s signature, facing a certain White House veto).
One sign that the House has been pushing highly partisan measures is that voting in the chamber is extremely polarized. The chart below, based on data calculated by the journal Congressional Quarterly, shows the percent of recorded votes since 1989 in the House (the red trend line) and Senate (the blue line) that were “party votes,” defined as votes in which a majority of one party opposed the majority of the other. Last year, just over 3 out of 4 House votes fell into that category—the highest rate in the House ever recorded by the journal (going all the way back to 1953). The result, as Emily Ethridge writes in CQ, were votes that “helped both parties to score political points, but…did not result in much legislative action.” By contrast, the Senate was far less partisan in its voting. In fact, the gap in party voting between the two chambers is the second largest in the chart (the highest being in 2010).
Passing a lot of ideologically extreme legislation, particularly under divided government, is one way to guarantee that little of substance is enacted into law. The Senate illustrates another approach: namely, to do nothing at all. Or at least, not very much. Rather than give Senate Republicans the same opportunity for position-taking that their compatriots in the House have had—or risk any difficult votes that might endanger members of their shrunken and endangered majority—Democratic leaders in the Senate opted instead to keep the Senate calendar thin.
One way to measure legislative activity is by looking at the number of recorded votes taken in each chamber. The chart below shows the frequency of such votes in the House and Senate every year since 1989 (1990 for the House). 2011 was one of just three odd-numbered years in which the number of recorded Senate votes fell from the previous year (1991 and 1997 were the other two). And, unlike in 1991 or 1997, the decline in 2011 was quite substantial: there were 21% fewer recorded Senate votes from the previous year, versus 14% in 1991 and a mere 3% in 1997. Again, the contrast with the House—where there were a lot of recorded votes cast on conservative issues, in keeping with the House Republican’s own political strategy—is striking. In fact, in only one other year (2007) was the gap in the number of votes between the two chambers wider than it was in 2011.
(It could be that the Senate is just as active as the House, but is passing things by voice vote or by unanimous consent. I haven’t looked more deeply at Senate voting in the 112th Congress, but given how partisan the chamber has become, I am skeptical that the data are hiding some a huge amount of bipartisan legislative activity.)
The result of all this is a sort of cynical partisan politics—a deliberate decision to avoid making any moves that might lead to changes in policy, lest the “responsible” political party suffers at the polls, and instead rely on either meaningless symbolism or avoid doing anything at all.
Strategic decision-making alone can’t be blamed entirely for a lack of legislating. Divided government is a challenge for policy-makers of both parties. One mustn’t forget how uncompromising many House Republicans are at the moment. Nor the ridiculous “rule” that all bills must first get 60 Senators to agree to their consideration.
But the parties should not escape blame, either. More generally, I think we are witnessing what happens when strong, cohesive parties see symbolic politics and partisan conflict as their best bet for their political—and thus electoral—success. This is not a new development: it has been occurring for years, under both unified and divided government, a trend that scholars such as Frances Lee and Barbara Sinclair have documented.
The great danger is that, while each party may see political benefits in acting this way, the result when both parties follow strategies that result in legislative stasis is a tarnished reputation for the Republican and Democratic brands, greater cynicism about Congress, and a government seemingly incapable of tackling the big national problems of the day.
And yet Congress continues to do little, and it continues to be disliked by nearly everybody. I’m doubtful that even unified government would lead the parties to abandon their obsession with power and position-taking at the expense of nearly everything else, including enacting needed and well-crafted national policy. We may need to see a true voter revolt against incumbents from both sides of the aisle, and from both chambers, before the parties find the nerve to do what they’re supposed to do: legislate.