What's Missing in the Polarization Debate? Congress.

Currently, the debate over American polarization is dominated by electoral considerations: gerrymandering, sorting, PACs, campaign finance, etc. Most of these arguments are based on underlying assumption that the American people, or a political process that sorts voters into districts, are driving polarization. For the most part this is true. However, the effect is also hugely overstated. Gerrymandering has an effect, but it is small. Sorting has an effect, but it is also small. What is more perplexing is these explanations fall apart when considering polarization in the Senate. For one, the Senate cannot be gerrymandered. Also, if voter sorting was the primary cause of polarization, then one would have a difficult time explaining the voting histories of Louisiana’s Senators Vitter (R) and Landrieu (D) or Nevada’s Reid (D) and Heller (R). I want to be clear, electoral factors clearly affect polarization. However, they are also not the underlying reason the parties are so far apart. Focusing too myopically on voters and elections has pushed out other explanations. The major factor often left out in this debate is Congress itself. Recent research shows that polarization is primarily an institutional problem. The current legislative process incentivizes partisan polarization. Sean Theriault’s research on polarization estimates that the modern legislative process (and its counterpart in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) accounts for over 70-percent of measured voting polarization in the House and 60-percent of measured voting polarization in the Senate.

How is that possible? Congressional polarization is a combination of procedural organization and political incentives. Today, the majority party leaders, particularly the Speaker, dominate the procedural landscape. While Boehner may be a poor leader to his membership, when it comes to floor scheduling, amendments, and debate, he rules the roost. The current Speaker appoints the Republican members directly to the Rules Committee (Democratic leader “nominates” members to the committee, who are unceremoniously and uncontroversially approved by the caucus). As a result, the Speaker has immense influence over the decisions made by the Rules Committee. If Rules members don’t follow his lead, he can simply replace them with somebody that will.

This is vital because the Rules Committee determines: which bills are considered on the floor (aka, what has the opportunity to be law), which amendments are in order (if any), and the terms of debate. By directing the Rules Committee to issue a rule, Boehner determines the policies and votes in the House. Of course, there is a lot of informal influence and negotiating behind the scenes. Members can pressure the Speaker, get in his/her good graces, or pursue other means to ensure floor action on their bill. But as far as actually pulling the lever, Boehner effectively controls access to the floor.

This process effectively marries the goals of the Republican Party with the legislative process of the House. As the party’s congressional leader, the Speaker has a responsibility to his partisan members. And it is important to note, not all legislative goals are policy goals. In many, if not most cases in the current Congress, votes taken on the floor are political. In other words, they are meant to distinguish the two parties rather than create good public policy. In other words, opportunities to make the opposition party look bad are just as likely to receive votes as those that create good policy. (This example is about the House but the Senate is also guilty of this, just in a different way.)

To make this clearer, let’s consider the story of eight derivatives bills passed in the 113th House. In May, the House Financial Services Committee held a markup for eight derivatives bills. Most, though not all, reformed pending or not yet in place portions of Dodd-Frank Act, the 2010 financial reform bill. Seven out of the eight bills flew through committee without much resistance, passing the committee with fewer than 11 votes in opposition out of a total of 60 votes (in fact, most passed with fewer than 6 votes against). Only one, H.R. 1062, the SEC Regulatory Accountability Act, drew a straight party line vote. All Republicans voted in favor. All Democrats voted against. Guess which bill was scheduled for floor action first? H.R. 1062. Rather than pass any of the other bills that would likely receive bipartisan support on the floor, the House leadership scheduled the one bill that divided the parties completely.

The moral of the story is scheduling votes is often a partisan act. As Frances Lee illustrates, party leaders have several incentives to wage partisan war. Therefore, the act of voting is more than just policy. By passing H.R. 1062 first, the Republican leadership sent a signal to those affected by the bill who was on your side and who was not. Therefore, H.R. 1062 was a vehicle to differentiate themselves from Democrats.

In short, legislative process enables the parties to wage partisan wars, not just policy wars. This not only helps explain why the parties diverge more in eras where process empowers party leaders, it also explains the votes taken during the current stalemate on the debt ceiling and CR. In both chambers, leaders are looking for negotiating leverage. This is just one reason why the House passed several mini-CRs for popular programs and departments and the Senate has continually requested a budget conference. It makes political sense even if it doesn’t make policy sense.

Legislative process is arguably the backbone to today’s polarization. A more thorough explanation could undoubtedly speak about the social, media, and other auxiliary effects of congressional polarization on American politics. There is no question they are extensive and substantial. However, the main caveat is that Congress is not the only cause. Elections reinforce this dynamic. Safe Republican and Democratic districts create few incentives to work across the aisle. Additionally, safe districts also make it more likely that extreme candidates emerge from the primary process. So while the process is not the only cause, it is measurably the biggest. The current process enables partisan strategy. And as a result, our voting indices that measure polarization reflect the scheduling and procedural (or tactical) votes that distinguish the parties rather than unite them.

How Congress schedules votes and makes laws should be a centerpiece in the polarization discussion. While it is not the only cause, it is arguably the most important factor that is driving today’s partisan division.