Diversity and consensus in Senate committees

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By Jason Mycoff

In an era of party polarization and congressional infighting, many wonder if Congress can get anything done. My research focuses on how diverse perspectives can potentially enhance or hinder legislative efforts.

Political scientists have done excellent work on identity diversity in Congress that has improved our understanding of how diversity increases descriptive representation, helps increase substantive representation and amplify issues that are important to under-represented constituents, provides symbolic benefits to constituents, and increases satisfaction and trust between constituents and representatives. I extend work on diversity in Congress to understand how diverse perspectives on Senate committees affect consensus through application of the “value in diversity” hypothesis.

The Value in Diversity Hypothesis

Developed by psychologists studying corporate workgroups, the value in diversity hypothesis is that diverse talents and perspectives are useful in finding novel or even groundbreaking solutions beyond what an individual can achieve. The mechanism that allows diverse groups to find better solutions than more homogenous groups is that diverse groups have the potential to include a perspective that will find the best combination of problem solving components while avoiding negative externalities among available alternatives. In other words, a more diverse group will be more likely to include an individual with the perspective or problem-solving skills to develop such a solution than a less diverse group.

Empirical support for the value in diversity hypothesis, however, is inconsistent. In contrast to the many benefits of diversity in workgroups, scholars have found that diversity can cause difficult working conditions, negatively affect communication and integration, and fail to improve (or even lead to worse) outputs.

Can diverse perspectives enhance committee consensus, or do they cause division and conflict? Do different kinds of diverse perspectives result in different effects on consensus?

Like business workgroups, Senate committees work on complex tasks involving problem solving. Senate committees have varying amounts of diversity in member demographics, ideology, and professional experience that represent diverse perspectives. It stands to reason that military, law or business training might lead senators to have different approaches to problem solving and different approaches may lead to different solutions. Do different perspectives and different ideas about how to solve problems cause conflict in committees or do the different perspectives create consensus by revealing better solutions in the eyes of committee members?

One way to observe conflict and consensus is in the reports committees write about their legislative efforts. Do the reports include a dedicated section outlining minority or alternative views representing conflict? Or, is there enough consensus on the committee that such a dedicated section is not necessary?

According to the value in diversity hypothesis, Senate committees with more diverse membership may experience more conflict in the initial stages of legislative consideration due to possible clashes between different perspectives, but the value of differing perspectives should ultimately lead to more consensus.

Measuring Diverse Perspectives and Consensus

I measured diverse perspectives through seven different forms of diversity including identity (gender and race), ideological (DW Nominate score) and professional experience (bureaucratic experience, career in law, executive experience and military service). Each of these measures capture what psychologists refer to as trait diversity—stable attributes that members bring to the group and do not change during the group’s tenure. Professional experiences expose individuals to different perspectives on problem solving. Likewise, diverse identities indirectly capture life experiences that influence cognitive diversity.

I coded each senator in the 104th through 113th congresses for each measure of diversity and tested my hypotheses about diverse perspectives and committee consensus using data on all bills that originated in the Senate during the 104th through the 113th Congresses that were reported to the Senate floor with a written report. The data included 3,064 reports. Among the reports, 473, or 15.4 percent, included a section dedicated to additional or minority views.

Building Committee Consensus

Many Senate committees, over time, have featured rosters of mostly white men with law degrees. Across the landscape of committees, however, there is a good bit of variation in diversity—while some committees have been largely homogenous, other committees feature more heterogeneity, and the level of heterogeneity changes over time within individual committees. The results of my analysis supported my theory and the broader value in diversity hypothesis. Diverse perspectives measured as diversity in race, executive experience and law experience each had a negative effect on the likelihood of observing a minority views section of a committee report. A committee with a roster featuring racial diversity, or a balance of executives and non-executives, or lawyers and non-lawyers, is less likely to produce a report with a dedicated section for minority or alternative views and therefore more likely to have found consensus on a legislative solution.

The most important implication of this result is that legislatures should consider increasing diversity along many different dimensions in order to increase committee consensus, ease gridlock and mitigate the effects of party polarization. Legislators with many different perspectives, working together, can unlock solutions that create more consensus among lawmakers.

Jason Mycoff is an associate professor of political science at the University of Delaware.