Ideology Isn't Source of All Partisanship | Procedural Politics

By Wolfensberger, Don | Roll Call, November 5, 2013 | Go to article overview

Ideology Isn't Source of All Partisanship | Procedural Politics


Wolfensberger, Don, Roll Call


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," she writes.

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 ground."

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. …

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