Contemporary congressional leaders and rank-in-file lawmakers face a daunting problem that is not well understood, even by them. It’s the political sin of “over promising and under delivering,” behavior that reinforces the public’s anger and cynicism about Washington.
Some explain legislative underachievement by pointing only to the growth in partisan polarization. Congressional Democrats have become more liberal and Republicans more conservative, they say, making the calculus of compromise more like abstract algebra than basic arithmetic.
That’s part of the problem, but there is more. While partisanship has changed, institutional rules have not. The interaction of increased polarization – particularly how parties discuss and frame issues – with constitutional and other institutional rules that demand compromise, creates conditions that often produce stalemate.
It’s this combination of parties talking about solutions using more partisan language – a byproduct of today’s partisan age – together with rules that demand bipartisanship to reach an outcome, which has created a new set of governing challenges.
The growth in partisan polarization over the past thirty years is well documented. In the 1980s, for example, it was not uncommon to find some Republicans more liberal than some Democrats and some Democrats more conservative than some Republicans. This intra-party diversity provided fertile territory for common ground. Those days are gone.
As polarization increased, congressional rhetoric and platforms grew more partisan as well. Think of Republicans “Better Way” in 2016, Democrats’ “6 for ‘06” or the GOP’s Contract with America in 1994. Each party talks about what “they” will accomplish if given the reins of power.
Yet while partisanship and its accompanying rhetoric has changed, institutional constraints, such as super-majority Senate rules, have not – meaning neither party can rarely realize all of its goals unilaterally. Political scientist William F. Connelly underscores this point in his book, James Madison Rules America. Unlike a parliamentary system, Connelly writes, our constitution “fails to distinguish neatly one party as ‘the government’ and the other party as ‘the opposition.’” “To be successful, congressional leaders need to understand the constitutional context within which they operate.”
In other words, despite media shorthand, neither party is ever “completely in charge.” Despite these institutional constraints, Congress campaigns as if they can govern unilaterally, but neither party can.
Worse, neither side has figured out how to explain these institutional constraints without deflating their core supporters or even being attacked as “sell outs” by angry partisans and run the risk of a major primary challenge.
It’s true that a highly unified party could use the budget reconciliation process to muscle through one or two items with simple majority votes in the House and Senate. But even finding that kind of harmony has proven elusive.
At the same time, while cross-party cooperation is essential for achieving outcomes, neither side has an incentive to do so. While partisan polarization has driven the parties further apart, political competition has also increased over the last three decades, according to political scientist Frances E. Lee. Each election brings about a new opportunity to shift the balance of power, according to Lee in her 2016 book, Insecure Majorities. So instead of having the motivation to cooperate, each party does better by making the other side look bad.
But instead of embracing and explaining these constitutional constraints, lawmakers talk like they operate in a parliamentary system. They promote their party’s unique solutions: “Republican healthcare ideas” or Democratic plans to “protect Social Security.” They proffer these platforms as if the other party didn’t exist.
What’s the answer? The first step is awareness. Lawmakers need to recognize the impact of rising partisan tides on their political rhetoric and strategies. They need to acknowledge that campaign promises will likely hit a wall of immovable institutional constraints. The system allows the majority some wins. It’s just not a winner take all system.
Next is adaptation. Partisans don’t have to give up espousing party positions. Nor should they. But they do need to convince their supporters that they will get as much (conservative or liberal) policy as they can within the constraints of the system. They need to temper expectations, adjust strategies and educate their constituents.
This is a tough one. And it’s even more challenging in an age of fragmented, ideologically driven media and advocacy organizations that make money by staking out extreme, uncompromising positions.
But until our political class and voters alike recognize that winning the White House or a congressional majority, does not transform the victors into policy dictators, “over promising and under delivering” will define our Washington culture.
Gary Andres was the Majority Staff Director for the House Energy and Commerce Committee from 2011-2017. He also worked in the Office of Legislative Affairs for Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. He is currently the Senior Executive Vice President for Public Affair at the Biotechnology Innovation Association. The view expressed are his own.
The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.