Why do political parties in Congress sometimes fight, even when
they agree? Is it like siblings who seem to quarrel over nothing --
just the nature of the beast?
Frances Lee, a political scientist at the University of Maryland,
agrees that a lot of the inter-party fighting seems senseless
because it doesn't involve deep philosophical differences. In her
book, "Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles and Partisanship in the
U.S. Senate," Lee writes, "The public perceives party conflict in
Congress as 'bickering,' as excessive quarreling driven by members'
power and electoral interests."
Political scientists, on the other hand, have "tended to
interpret congressional party conflicts as evidence of members'
principled differences on the proper role and scope of government,"
Lee sides more with public perceptions that parties often spar
just to advance narrow partisan interests, rather than giving voice
to pre-existing policy differences in the larger political context.
That only exacerbates and institutionalizes conflict. In their quest
to win elections and hold power, she writes, "partisans impeach one
another's motives, question one another's ethics and competence and
engage in reflexive partisanship ... rather than seeking common
Evidence of this can be found in instances in which the parties
are in broad agreement on an underlying bill yet still engage in
partisan combat. Lee's analysis of the Senate reveals that
"procedural votes on issues not involving ideological questions are
just as intensely partisan as substantive votes on some of the most
ideologically controversial issues in American politics."
From my experience, the House is much the same. An example arose
last month over House consideration of the Water Resources Reform
and Development Act. The bill would authorize 23 water projects --
dams, levees, canals, harbors, dredging and environmental
restoration programs -- at a cost of $3.1 billion over the next five
years. It also would establish a new, non-congressional earmark
process for selecting future projects.
The bill had nearly four dozen bipartisan co-sponsors and was
approved on a voice vote from the 70-member House Transportation and
Infrastructure Committee. Dozens of business, labor and civic groups
endorsed the bill, as did the White House and bipartisan House
leadership. With such a strong tailwind, it is little wonder the
measure sailed through the House, 417-3. …