“Washington is broken.” Good point. Why is nobody trying to repair it?

Since bipartisan “hope” in Obama’s first campaign has worn off, we are back to accepting the Washington’s “broken” politics.  Of course, by “Washington” people mean “Congress.” However, when it comes to actually fixing the problem nobody is stepping up to the plate – Obama included. This disconnect has festered for roughly ten years. So far, the only thing pundits and politicians want to talk about is the problem: polarization. Not one person has offered a legitimate solution. They seem content to talk about incivility and partisan rancor. I can think of a few reasons for this. First, it is a vacant talking point solely meant to generate ratings. Second, we like the current party divide that gives us clear options on Election Day but dislike the politics associated with it. Third, it’s a government conspiracy to make neighbors angry at one another. Fourth, and most likely, nobody knows how to fix it. This is particularly frustrating given the optimism of the 2008 campaign. President Obama campaigned on the promise to change the tenor of politics in Washington. However, talking only does so much. Several discussions over the past three years meant to promote reasonable debate (e.g. healthcare roundtable, Obama speaking to the Republican House and Senate conferences, etc.) have fallen well short of their goal. Members inevitably fall back into grandstanding and routine partisan behavior. There are a multitude of reasons for this. I’m going to highlight one: Congress lacks the legislative rules that promote reasonable debate.

The current process is very exclusionary. The majority party can pass legislation with very little input from the minority. Why compromise on a bill with the other party if it isn’t necessary? If bipartisanship is the goal, designing a legislative process that reinforces cooperation must be a starting point. Therefore, if you want bipartisanship, you need to change Congress’s rules.

However, over the past ten years only one rule change has had any real chance of passing. Of course, I’m referring to the filibuster. Given minorities’ willingness to abuse filibusters over the past few congresses, it isn’t surprising that filibuster reform is a popular topic. However, for people who dislike polarization this would introduce some nasty consequences. Filibusters are one of the few significant points of minority influence left in the entire legislative process. In other words, it is one of the few points where the minority party can force compromise. Without it the Senate might effectively turn into a second House of Representatives – simply passing the majority agenda without much deliberation or compromise.

So as a nation we’re stuck in a conundrum. We dislike polarization but have recently considered institutional changes that will intensify it. Historically, the more the majority controls the process, the more polarization exists. This was true from 1890 through 1910 just as it is true from 1980 to present. As procedural discretion is given to party leaders, the two parties have drifted apart. On the other hand, when automated processes constrained party leaders’ power polarization decreased.

We need to introduce reforms better aimed at the problem. This is where political scientists need to enter the fray. We know a lot about polarization, its effects, and its causes. In fact, we know that legislative rules play a major role in the proliferation of partisanship. As cited many times on this blog, Theriault’s book highlights the significant correlation between the rise in polarization with party strength, and, most importantly, procedural manipulation (2008). The more procedural discretion the majority controls, the less inclusive they are of the minority.

Politicians aren’t making this connection. I had a personal experience with a former senator working on a bipartisan commission. I mentioned a few reforms that could temper party competition in Congress and possibly promote more bipartisanship. He/she looked at me as if I suggested we go to lunch on Mars. I'm not suggesting this individual did not know the significance of procedure. Far from it. But I don't think they connect how legislative structures systemically shape members' behavior and interaction. Rules shape outcomes but, more importantly, they shape behavior. If reformers want to change the politics in Congress, they need to take a serious look at how rules promote or discourage particular behaviors and relationships.

I’m not suggesting we can “fix” polarization through procedural reform alone. Ideological shifts in the electorate, media coverage, and party leaders’ rhetoric (just to name a few) are intangibles that cannot be changed with the flip of a switch. However, we can offer institutional changes that might point us in the right direction. If we want to take a step toward bipartisan debate, we need a legislative process that encourages that form of governance.