Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Into the Intro: Congress and the Politics of Problem Solving

E. Scott Adler, John D. Wilkerson

This week on Into the Intro, we’re catching up on the news with Congress and the Politics of Problem Solving. If you read the headlines, you probably think that the last few weeks of tax battles and partisan bickering on Capitol Hill make “Congress” and “problem solving” sound like contradictory ideas. But check out this book to understand how Congress manages to bridge the aisle to address problems the voters care about and why the prevailing assessment of the federal legislature as dysfunctional and paralyzed fails to give Congress enough credit for the strides it actually makes. Read or download the entire excerpt here.

This is the most dysfunctional political environment that I have ever seen. But then you have to juxtapose that with [this Congress being] one of, at least, the three most productive Congresses since 1900… . Making sense of all that can make your head burst.
Norman Ornstein (Fahrenthold, Rucker, and Sonmez 2010)

This was, by far, the most productive Congress in American history.… Why? Because we heard the message the American people sent us last month: They don’t want us to sit around and waste their time. They want us to work together and work for them.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Bolton 2010)

How is it that a legislature like Congress – so rife with dysfunction and partisanship – can nevertheless meet many of the demands of voters and pass much-needed legislation? In this book we consider why and how Congress is able to address problems in society despite the many reasons mustered for why it cannot. According to many recent accounts, congressional politics has become so polarized and dysfunctional that lawmakers are incapable of cooperating on even the most mundane issues. Reelection and partisanship are such all-consuming concerns that individual legislators no longer contribute to the work of the chamber. Congress has been variously described as the “Broken Branch” (Mann and Ornstein 2006), the scene of a “Second Civil War” (Brownstein 2007), and a venue for “Fight Club Politics” (Eilperin 2007).

Claims about congressional dysfunction are hardly new. A review of scholarly research reveals remarkably similar statements in previous decades. In the 1990s, scholars debated how to “fix” or “remake” Congress (Robinson 1995; Thurber and Davidson 1995). In the 1980s, there was a “crying need” for reform (Penner and Abramson 1988). The 1970s saw a Congress that was “against itself” (Davidson and Oleszek 1977). In the 1960s it was “out of order” (Bolling 1965) and “in crisis” (Davidson, Kovenock, and O’Leary 1966). Even as far back as the 1940s, reforms meant to address a “Congress at the crossroads” (Galloway 1946) were ultimately judged to have “failed” to address Congress’s ills (Life Magazine 1947). These are just a small taste of the many books, articles, and reports over the years that have portrayed Congress as an ineffective lawmaking body in need of serious restructuring.

All is not well with Congress. The institution rarely responds as quickly or as completely as many would prefer. Electoral dynamics sometimes create incentives for parties in Congress to highlight their differences rather than their common concerns. Yet, Congress also accomplishes more than is generally appreciated, and much more than many scholarly perspectives would lead us to expect. Contemporary legislative research often portrays the policy preferences of lawmakers as central to understanding policy making and change in Congress. We argue that preferences often take a back seat to another concern – problem solving. On many issues, legislators seek common ground because they share common electoral incentives. Evidence in support of this perspective is hiding in plain sight. As observers have concluded that Congress is broken or failing, the institution has been addressing significant societal problems – the struggle for civil rights, military conflicts in every part of the globe, access to affordable health insurance, environmental and energy crises, educational disparities, tax reform, economic recessions – and many other visible and less visible challenges.

Conflict in Congress is neither all consuming nor is it the defining characteristic of lawmaking. Research documenting partisan polarization focuses on the growing percentage of roll call votes that pit a majority of one party against a majority of the other (McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal 2006; Roberts and Smith 2003; Theriault 2008). Yet, at the end of the day, partisan agreement has been the historical norm in congressional politics, even for important issues. Most bills in the modern era pass with bipartisan support (see Carson, Finocchiaro, and Rohde 2010; Lee 2005, 308). Similarly, although the number of laws passed by Congress has declined somewhat in recent decades (from an average of about 750 laws per term in the 1940s and 1950s, to approximately 450 laws per term in the 1990s and 2000s), the number of pages of legislation enacted has increased by more than 300 percent (from around 2,600 pages of statutory language per term, to well more than 6,000 pages). Congress also continues to engage in as much regular oversight of federal agencies and programs as it ever has (Aberbach 2002; Ainsworth, Harward and Moffett 2010). And as mentioned, the recent 111th Congress (2009–10), initially characterized as one of the most dysfunctional in years, turned out to be one of the most productive in generations (Fahrenthold, Rucker, and Sonmez 2010; Hulse and Herszenhorn 2010).

Why, then, do criticisms of Congress overshadow its accomplishments? “Conflict,” Pamela Shoemaker and Stephen Reese conclude, “is more inherently interesting than harmony” (1996, 117; see also Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope 2005). Given the options of portraying the congressional glass as half-full or half-empty – of focusing on conflict versus consensus – there seems to be a longstanding bias toward the latter (Durr, Gilmour, and Wolbrecht 1997; Hibbing and Larimer 2008; Ramirez 2009). Speaking to CNN, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) caustically remarked, “It would surprise people that 90 percent of the time, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle get along. But, you know, that’s not news for those of you in the news business” (Boehner 2011). Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), reflecting on an important enactment that received little coverage, opined that the news media “are conditioned to assume that the most important political issues are the ones that create the greatest amount of public drama and culminate in gavel pounding showdowns on the House floor… . This set me to pondering the old line about a tree falling in the forest: When a law of real consequence is enacted without anyone noticing, does it still count as an accomplishment?” (Waxman 2010, 136–7). A similar bias toward conflict also seems to pervade scholarly research on Congress, possibly for the same reasons. One goal of this book, in contrast, is to understand better the agreement that also seems to be such an important and understudied aspect of congressional lawmaking.

Read or download the entire excerpt here.

About The Authors

E. Scott Adler

E. Scott Adler is the co-author of Congress and the Politics of Problem Solving (2013). He is associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is...

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John D. Wilkerson

John D. Wilkerson is co-author of Congress and the Politics of Problem Solving (2013). Wilkerson is the Director of the Center for American Politics and Public Policy at the Univer...

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