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Is Bipartisanship Dead?

New book by IPR's Laurel Harbridge uncovers hidden side of partisanship

Current research on polarization in Congress has only looked at half the picture, says IPR's Laurel Harbridge.

According to conventional wisdom, the U.S. Congress has become increasingly polarized in recent years, with bipartisan cooperation falling as a result. But research on Congress’ rising polarization has only looked at half the picture, IPR political scientist Laurel Harbridge argues in her new book, Is Bipartisanship Dead? Policy Agreement and Agenda-Setting in the House of Representatives (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

While research on polarization in Congress has examined trends in roll-call voting (when a representative votes “yea” or “nay” as his or her name is called), it ignores cosponsorship coalitions—when representatives cosponsor each others’ bills, including those introduced by members of the opposing party. The focus on roll-call voting conflates the potential for bipartisanship on legislation with whether or not leaders pursue legislation with bipartisan agreement. While partisanship in roll-call voting increased between the 1970s and 1990s, partisanship in cosponsorship coalitions was much more stable, leading Harbridge to contend that, “Bipartisanship, in short, is not dead; it is just hidden from view.”

Continuing bipartisanship in cosponsorship coalitions “suggests that the story of declining bipartisanship on the House floor cannot be just about a lack of common ground between members of the two parties,” she writes in the book.

Laurel Harbridge

Instead, she maintains that a variety of factors have contributed to changes in how the majority party structures the legislative roll-call agendas over time in a way that “manufactures partisan conflict.” Party leaders pursued bipartisan bills in the 1970s but pursued partisan bills by the 1990s.

One of these contributing factors is “district sorting.” In the 1970s, Congressional lawmakers often represented districts that were not overwhelmingly dominated by their political party. To appease members’ electoral concerns, leaders were forced to support more bipartisan legislation. Over the last four decades, however, districts have become more politically homogeneous, so leaders are able to pursue more partisan legislation.

While leaders’ concerns about governance and producing a record of legislative success can push them to focus on places of bipartisan agreement, the benefits of pointing out partisan differences reign in recent years. Legislators and their party benefit from emphasizing places of disagreement, appealing to the primary election base, and aligning with supportive interest groups.

As a result of factors such as these, legislators prioritize more partisan bills for roll call agendas—even if there is underlying bipartisan agreement on certain issues. When leaders pursue partisan agendas, roll-call votes are split along party lines, fewer bills become law, and, in some circumstances, gridlock ensues.

Understanding the factors that drive partisan conflict in voting, Harbridge notes, will enable policymakers to make changes that are needed—and avoid those that are extraneous.

“If members of Congress do share common ground, but are embedded in a legislative process that increasingly favors partisan disagreement, solutions should focus on this process and on the majority party’s incentives to pursue partisan legislation, and not on simply instigating legislative turnover,” she concludes.

Laurel Harbridge is assistant professor of political science and an IPR fellow.

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