Beyond partisanship

August 2, 2016 Emily Baer
Top Vector Studio /

Every four years, observers of politics, the media, and even the public at large speculate about how the president and Congress will shape the legislative agenda and whether they will be able to work together. Whether it is a unified or a divided party government, none of these situations are without considerable conflict, and compromise will be difficult, as Kyle Kondik argues in his First Year essay, Scenario Planning. And yet, it is easy to overlook how little will likely change no matter who wins the presidency or which party controls Congress. 

Two things will undoubtedly remain the same: Congress will repeatedly fail to respond to pressing national policy problems, and the newly-elected president will struggle to work with Congress to pass the most significant legislative priorities. That is, unless Congress adopts institutional reforms and the new president works to develop strong relationships with congressional leaders.

American political institutions are in a vicious cycle, and neither Congress nor the president comes out ahead. In Congress, and especially in the House of Representatives, rampant partisan polarization and too-heavily centralized leadership limit the participation of rank-and-file members in the legislative process. Party leaders fail to unify members behind a coherent policy agenda, and Congress has a weak institutional capacity to respond to new policy problems. Thus while recent polls show 55 percent of the public supports gun control laws, Congress cannot agree on new legislation. In response, frustrated presidents, including George W. Bush and Barack Obama, increasingly use their executive authority to bypass Congress, which results in angering both leaders and members of Congress. 

To combat this cycle, congressional leaders need to strengthen the capacity of members to work together throughout the legislative process, and the new president needs to develop strong allies in Congress. Neither will be easy. Congress is long overdue for necessary institutional reforms. The institution’s low public approval and poor legislative productivity in recent years is not just a reflection of partisan polarization. Congress is weakened by a leadership that frequently bypasses substantive policy debate and rank-and-file members’ participation in the process, and a tremendously weakened committee system. The Senate filibuster may be a favorite target of commentators outside of Congress, but in many respects, the House is more in need of reform.

While members of Congress rarely, if ever, win (re)election on proposals to improve Congress, the election of Hillary Clinton in November may embolden Freedom Caucus Republicans to pursue the rules reform agenda they laid out amidst the tumultuous October 2015 leadership race. These reforms included calls for a return to “regular order” and proposals to limit the Speaker’s power over the Republican Steering Committee that sets party policy and nominates committee chairs. President Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 similarly spurred liberal Democrats in the House to act on many of their reform proposals, including the historic introduction of regular party meetings and the organization of a party committee to study the oft-criticized seniority system.

Facing another four years of a Democratic president, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and the likely Republican majority in the House have a strong incentive to act as the main voice of opposition, but that would be a mistake. House and Senate leaders should leverage the populist, reformist fervor in both parties to organize a joint committee on the organization of Congress to study proposals to improve its structure and function, including reforms to the Senate filibuster, and proposals to increase legislative worktime, limit the use of special rules, and reinstate legislative service organizations in the House. The last such committee was organized in the early 1990s amid great promise but failed to produce significant long-term change.   

Procedural reforms that provide rank-and-file members with meaningful participation in the legislative process will be especially important in reconciling some of the factional divisions that emerged over the past year in both parties. Neither Democratic nor Republican party leaders will be able to incorporate all of the demands of their most vocal factions—Democratic Progressives and the Republican Tea Party and Freedom Caucus—but they can give them a seat at the table. As few of Donald J. Trump’s proposals align with the agenda laid out by Speaker Ryan, he will likely face more opposition from his own party than Clinton (not to mention potential Senate filibuster). But in either case, the next president and Congress should invite representatives from key factions to participate in critical negotiations, and Congress should restore the normal legislative process whereby the committee of jurisdiction considers and reports legislation and members have opportunities to vote on amendments on the floor. Both of these efforts will go a long way towards assuaging concerns.   

New presidents often have unrealistic expectations about what they will be able to accomplish in Congress. Clinton’s Senate and executive branch experience will help her navigate this relationship, but Trump will struggle to adapt his business mindset about the power presidents have to “quickly” force legislation through Congress. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had to adapt his military leadership skills to the realities of the executive and legislative branches. Similarly, Trump will need to deliver on his oft-championed negotiation skills if he wants Congress to authorize (or appropriate money for) the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Despite President Obama’s historic, arguably mandate-producing election in 2008, and a brief two-year period of unified Democratic control, his signature legislative achievement—the Affordable Care Act—was eventually passed in large part because of the support of congressional leaders, especially Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who were willing to repeatedly go to bat for him and this singular legislative goal. The success of Clinton and Trump’s major policy goals in the first 100 days will require strong allies in Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress.   

Perhaps the most important action Congress and the new president can take in the first year is not the adoption of any one specific policy proposal, but rather a concerted effort to strengthen the capacity of the legislative and executive branches to work together. Otherwise, the vicious cycle of congressional-presidential relations will continue regardless of the outcome of the November elections.

Emily Baer is a Ph.D. candidate in American Politics at the University of Minnesota. Her dissertation is titled, “Party Factions and the Roots of Institutional Change in Congress: The Democratic Study Group and Liberal Democrats’ Campaign to Reform the House of Representatives (1959-1994).” Baer is a 2016-2017 Miller Center National Fellow.