Congress May Be More Bipartisan Than You Think

By Casey Burgat

At the Library of Congress’s Congress and History conference, political scientists James Curry and Frances Lee presented their working paper “Non-Party Government: Bipartisan Lawmaking and Theories of Party Power in Congress.” In the paper, the authors examine the degree to which increases in polarization and power centralization in Congress have resulted in strictly partisan lawmaking.

In short, they want to know if the common characterization of Congress is accurate: in our current era of hyper-polarization and confrontational politics, do majorities in Congress skip bipartisan legislating and pass bills over the strong objections of the minority?

Turns out---not so much. Curry and Lee “find that lawmaking today is not significantly more partisan than it was in the 1970s and 1980s.”

Such a conclusion is a bit counterintuitive given seemingly constant claims that parties are unwilling and unable to work together. Both parties have accused the other of ‘ramming legislation down the throats’ of the minority without even a semblance of compromise or debate. Democrats have most recently leveled that charge at the GOP’s maneuvers regarding the American Health Care Act.

The perception that majorities run roughshod over minorities is based on a couple observable characteristics of recent Congresses. First, institutionally, increased polarization has diminished overlaps in policy preferences between parties, theoretically decreasing the likelihood of reaching bipartisan agreements. Additionally, stronger, more cohesive political party organizations have developed, which have subsequently centralized power in leadership offices in order to facilitate partisan lawmaking. As articulated by the authors, “Members have provided their leaders a bevy of procedural and agenda-setting tools to structure the legislative process in ways that stand to benefit the majority party.” Among these tools is the bypassing of the traditional committee-driven legislative process in exchange for leadership-managed policy creation, and granting leadership a near monopoly in deciding what issues come up for a vote.

Both of these factors --- polarization and more cohesive parties with centralized power --- lead observers to hold two important expectations: 1. Bills that are actually signed into law are likely to be passed without bipartisan support; 2. The majority party is more effective at realizing their legislative agenda in spite of the minority opposition.

Curry and Lee, however, show that both of these expectations are not supported by the data.

For their analysis, the authors compile all passage votes in both chambers for bills that became law in the 93rd - 113th congresses (1973-2014). Additionally, Curry and Lee use a subset of bills identified as ‘landmark legislation’ by fellow political scientist David Mayhew, to examine if these more significant bills received less bipartisan support due to their increased impact and salience.

A brief discussion of three key findings within the paper are below, all of which suggest that lawmaking in Congress still generally requires, and receives, bipartisan support.

Most laws, including landmark legislation, are passed with strong bipartisan support. The above figure shows the average percent of minority party support on all bills that became law during each congress from 1973 to 2014 in the House of Representatives. Contrary to expectations, the figure shows no clear trendline of decreased minority support. On all bills that became law during this period, over 60% of minority lawmakers voted in favor of passage on average, and in many congresses over 80% of the minority voted yes. In fact, in the most recent congresses where polarization is most intense, we find the percentage of minority support is even higher than in less-partisan congresses of previous decades.

On landmark laws we see more variation in minority support across congresses, but still find that on average over 65% of minority lawmakers vote in favor of these laws. Only in two congresses, the 103rd and the 111th, does the percentage of minority support fall below 50%. Similar patterns are found in the Senate, though not discussed here. (Please see the linked paper for the data and analysis for the upper chamber.)

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Only rarely does the majority pass laws over the opposition of a majority of the minority party. The above figure shows the percent of laws which were passed in the House despite a majority of the minority voting no --- this is referred to as the minority getting rolled by the majority. On average, the minority roll rates were less than 15% for all laws passed during the period under study. In only a handful of congresses does the roll rate get above 25%, with the 103rd congress showing the highest rolle rate of over 30%. Again, we see no upward trend in roll rates despite stronger parties and increased centralized power in leadership offices.

Roll rates are moderately higher in the House of landmark laws, particularly in more recent congresses. However, even on these major bills, the majority is rolled only about 30% of the time. Of notable exception are the 103rd and 111th congresses where the minority was rolled on over 70% of landmark laws.

In the Senate, there is more variation in roll rates across congresses, but on average, the minority is rolled on less than 15% of all laws. On landmark laws in the Senate, there is only a slight increase in roll rates with 19% of major bills being passed with the majority of the minority voting no.

Despite increased majority party tools, Congressional majorities do not pass a greater portion of their legislative agenda than congresses in less partisan eras. In addition to looking at levels of minority support on legislation and roll rates, Curry and Lee also asses the degree to which majorities are able to enact their legislative agendas. Because of the increased cohesion of parties and tools granted majority leaders, we would expect to find that majorities are more effective in realizing their policy goals. Instead, the authors find that “congressional majorities rarely are able to enact new laws addressing priority agenda items that achieve most of what they set out to achieve. Far more frequently, majorities achieve none of what they set out to achieve or just some of it.”

The figure above displays the percentage of majority party agenda items enacted from 1973 to 2017, and it categorizes majority success in accomplishing some, most, or none of their policy goals on prioritized issues. While there is notable variation in the majority party’s ability to implement its agenda, the majority was unable to realize none of its legislative goals most frequently. Only rarely does the majority get most of what it wants on agenda items, particularly in more recent congresses. Even in congresses with unified party control the majority struggles to get even some of what its after. Having congressional majorities, as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R, KY, and Speaker Paul Ryan, R, Wi, could tell you, does not automatically translate to the majority dictating policy terms to the minority. Instead, it appears the majority must make concessions on policy goals to ensure passage.

In spite of stronger, more cohesive parties, as well as more powerful leaders with tools to execute partisan lawmaking, laws passed in Congress are mostly done with large percentages of the minority voting in the affirmative. Contrary to consistent claims of majority party dominance over the minority, laws, including landmark bills, are typically passed with majorities of both parties in support.

Here’s the bottom line in the words of the authors: “After decades of partisan change and institutional evolution in Congress, lawmaking remains a process of bipartisan accommodation.”

Casey Burgat is a governance fellow at the R Street Institute in Washington, D.C.