When more partisanship seemed like a good idea

The 2014 elections placed Republicans firmly in control of Congress, but the prospects for bipartisan legislating are probably no greater than they were when the Democrats had control of both chambers in 2009-10 and governed in a strictly partisan fashion.

Those familiar with the partisan gridlock that defines the modern Congress can be forgiven should they look fondly upon the bygone days of bipartisan cooperation in Congress. Political scientists lament as well the current state of congressional dysfunction.

But back in the days when congressional parties were more ideologically diverse and bipartisan legislating more common, government scholars sang a different tune. Political scientists then were lamenting the lack of partisanship and the presence of too much bipartisan cooperation that often blurred the distinctions between Republicans and Democrats.

Concern was so great that the American Political Science Association (APSA) formed a special panel on political parties tasked with studying ways to make parties more effective. The resulting report, "Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System: A Report of the Committee on Political Parties," was released in 1950.

At that time, there was tremendous partisan and ideological overlap in the Congress. Though Democrats dominated national politics, the congressional agenda was often controlled by a coalition of conservative Southern Democrats and Republicans.

Rather than two national political parties, Democrats and Republicans were more akin to coalitions of regional parties - often with divergent interests. The Democratic Party was divided between Northern liberal members and Southern conservatives. The Republican coalition included moderate Northern Republicans and more conservative Midwest and Western members.

This intra-party diversity made national policymaking more difficult. "As a result, either major party, when in power, is ill-equipped to organize its members in the legislative and the executive branches into a government held together and guided by the party program" asserted the 1950 APSA report.

Perhaps of greater concern, the lack of party cohesion and distinction introduced serious accountability challenges. How could the public make an informed choice in an election if a Democrat in one region of the country could not be counted on to share the beliefs and goals of a Democrat elected in another region of the country?

The report recommended stronger and more ideologically consistent political parties. The writers envisioned parties that were "able to bring forth programs to which they commit themselves and â?¦ possess sufficient internal cohesion to carry out these programs."

The authors concluded the weak party system of the time was a barrier to effective democratic leadership. Only parties could bridge the divide between policymakers and the public because they were able to reach people in a way unmatched by any other political organization.

Voters, the APSA report claimed, needed a party system in which a majority party proposes and pursues its clearly enunciated agenda while the opposition or minority party serves as critic of the majority, developing, defining, and presenting policy alternatives which offer voters a true choice.

In Congress, the APSA panel advocated party unity and means by which to enforce party discipline. In other words, Democratic members of Congress should support the policies put forth in the Democratic Party platform and Republican members should stand as the loyal opposition and offer their own distinct policies.

The authors dismissed concerns that such ideologically distinct parties might lead to deep division among the electorate, noting, "There is no real ideological division in the American electorate, and hence programs of action presented by responsible parties for the voter's support could hardly be expected to reflect or strive toward such division ."

Most observers of the contemporary Congress would conclude that the APSA panel on political parties got much of what it wanted. The parties today are more clearly defined and associated with distinct and typically opposing policy preferences.

Beyond party unity, there is clear ideological cohesion among the two parties. Congress now has ever fewer moderate or centrist members. While it was once common to have Democratic members more conservative than many Republican members and many Republicans more liberal than many Democratic members, the amount of overlap has been shrinking since the 1960s. A review of members in the 112th Congress in 2007-2008 revealed that no overlap existed.

Party unity in Congress has been achieved as well. Party unity refers to the percentage of House or Senate votes on which a member voted in agreement with a majority of his or her own party. In 2013, House Republicans set a record for party support, voting on average with their caucus 95 percent of the time. Likewise, Senate Democrats set a record, raising their average party unity score to 94 percent from the previous record of 92 percent.

The emergence of clearly distinct parties in Congress produced significant changes in the day-to-day operations of the House and Senate . Most notable is the concentration of power among party leadership and the steady erosion of once common practices.

The U.S. Constitution has little to say about the day-to-day operations of Congress. Rather, it is left to each chamber to develop its own rules and procedures. At the time of the APSA report on parties, there was a significant amount of ideological overlap among members of Congress regardless of party.

Given this level of ideological diversity, members were reluctant to cede too much agenda control to party leadership as they may pursue policies that are contrary to the member's preference. But as the two parties became more ideologically homogenous and the distance between their ideologies grew larger, members became more willing to empower leadership.

So now each chamber is essentially operated by a steamrolling major party leadership that seldom, if ever, seeks bipartisan solution to nation problems. That means many deserving policy alternatives seldom get serious congressional consideration.

The ideological purity so esteemed by scholars decades ago has proven to be a poor fit for a legislature representing a diverse country with widely varying attitudes. It forces public alternatives into partisan corsets in a way that distorts popular preferences in the lawmaking process. The APSA's 1950 report is a classic example of "be careful what you wish for - you may get it."


Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carlton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

Published: Fri, Feb 20, 2015