Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Environmental Policy and Party Divergence in Congress

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Environmental Policy and Party Divergence in Congress

Article excerpt

The question of whether parties converge or diverge over time has attracted a great deal of theoretical and empirical attention. In this article we make two contributions to this literature. First, rather than looking at general measures of ideology, we examine a specific policy area-environmental policy-to see whether the parties have diverged or converged. We utilize ratings produced by the League of Conservation Voters to obtain measures of congressional voting. Unlike other issue-specific studies of divergence, we adjust these scores, using a methodology recently developed by Groseclose, Levitt, and Snyder (1999), to make them comparable across time. Our results show that Republicans and Democrats in Congress have diverged over time on environmental issues. Second, once we determine that the parties have diverged, we analyze the underlying causes of this divergence. We provide three explanations for divergence between the two parties, based on the fact that parties are not monolithic but rather are made up of regional, factional, and individual components. If regions behave differently on an issue, then shifting representation of regions within parties will lead to shifts in overall party behavior. When internal factions with stronger views than the general party are more supported by interest groups and less constrained by issue salience or economic conditions, then the parties are more likely to diverge. And when party members are replaced by individuals with different views on an issue, overall party behavior shifts accordingly

After assuming control of both houses of Congress in 1994 for the first time in 40 years, members of the Republican party attempted such dramatic changes to environmental laws that by 1996 even Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA) openly worried that the attempted revisions were going too far. In a speech to the Environmental Policy Institute on April 24, Gingrich admitted that members of the GOP had "malpositioned" themselves on the environment. Many congressional Democrats, on the contrary, publicly reaffirmed their commitment to existing policies and attempted to make environmentalism a prominent issue in the 1996 elections. This apparent disparity between the two major political parties on an important issue area fosters some basic questions. Is the disagreement as wide as it appears? Has it been stable over time? Is the divergence on this issue consistent with broader ideological differences between the parties?

In this article we address these questions by assessing changes in congressional voting on environmental issues over the past three decades. To examine evidence of changes and patterns over time in congressional party behavior, we make use of an innovative new methodological approach, developed by Groseclose, Levitt, and Snyder (1999), that allows for the comparison of interest group ratings over long periods of time. We note that the difference between the voting scores of the Democrats and the Republicans in both houses of Congress has increased since 1970 and examine explanations for this trend as well as for the fluctuations within it.

In particular, our argument for the divergence between the two parties is based on the simple observation that political parties are not monolithic units but rather are collections of regions, factions, and individuals. To understand why the parties diverge, then, we must assess the behavior of these components within the parties. Specifically, we propose three explanations based on recognition of different components. First, parties are composed of members from different regions. When the regional composition of the larger party changes, so too can overall party behavior. Second, parties are composed of factions. When factions with strong views on an issue have more influence, the parties tend to diverge. Third, parties are composed of individuals with their own preferences. If incoming cohorts of individuals have different preferences on specific issues than outgoing cohorts, then divergence between the two parties on that issue will be affected. …

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