Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Party Polarization and Legislative Gridlock

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Party Polarization and Legislative Gridlock

Article excerpt

This article investigates how parties affect legislative gridlock-the inability of government to enact significant proposals on the policy agenda. Conventional accounts suggest that divided party control of government causes such stalemate. I offer an alternative partisan model of gridlock that incorporates party polarization, party seat division, and the interaction between these two factors. Using an original data set of major legislative proposals considered between 1975 and 1994, I find that divided government does not affect gridlock once party polarization and party seat division are taken into account. Instead, I find that higher party polarization increases the likelihood of encountering gridlock on a given proposal, but that the magnitude of this increase diminishes to the extent that a party is close to having enough seats to thwart filibusters and vetoes.

The persistence of divided party control of the legislative and executive branches of government over most of the last three decades has prompted an extensive, and as yet unresolved, debate about whether or not this phenomenon leads to the stalemate in the lawmaking process which is often referred to as gridlock. In the meantime, however, another phenomenon has been taking place in American politics that has received scant attention in studies of legislative gridlock: the policy preferences of the two parties have become increasingly polarized. Since 1990, more than half of all congressional votes have featured a majority of one party opposing a majority of the other party. This level of party polarization represents a steady increase over the 47 percent of such votes in the 1980s and 39 percent in the 1970s. To date, despite the indisputable rise in party polarization, few scholars have included a thorough investigation of party polarization in their studies of gridlock.

This article expands our understanding of legislative gridlock by examining how party polarization, in conjunction with varying partisan seat arrangements, affects the relative inability of government to enact significant proposals on the policy agenda. First, I briefly review the literature on the divided government hypothesis and discuss some aspects of the theory that might explain the mixed empirical findings. I then offer an alternative theory to explain how parties affect gridlock. This new theory focuses on party polarization, and its interaction with party seat division. I test these two hypotheses, using an original data set of major legislative proposals considered between 1975 and 1998. The results suggest that parties do affect gridlock, but that their impact is more complex than the standard divided government argument suggests.

PARTISAN MODELS OF LEGISLATIVE GRIDLOCK

The standard partisan model that has been offered as an explanation for legislative gridlock (or its counterpart, productivity) is the divided government hypothesis (see Sundquist 1988; Cutler 1988; Kelly 1993; Cameron, Howell, Adler, and Riemann 1997; Edwards, Barrett, and Peake 1997). The divided government hypothesis claims that legislation is less likely to be enacted when the President's party does not hold a majority of seats in both chambers of Congress. Supporters of this hypothesis explain that the constitutional separation of powers requires policy agreement among the House, Senate, and President in order for bills to become law. They further argue that agreement among these three bodies is likely to be thwarted during divided government (see also Kernell 1991).

While the divided government argument is quite intuitive, empirical support has been mixed. For example, while Mayhew's (1991) systematic analysis of significant laws passed in the postwar era finds no evidence that divided government is any less productive than unified government, Kelly (1993) reexamines Mayhew's data using different criteria for "significant laws" and finds that divided government does reduce enactment of these laws. …

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