The government in Washington is dysfunctional. That is one of the few things that Democrats and Republicans can agree on these days. Our nation faces major challenges in dealing with such problems as continuing high unemployment, growing inequality, an aging population, climate change, deteriorating infrastructure, poorly performing schools, lack of access to affordable health care, and gun violence. Yet Congress and the president seem incapable of agreeing on policies to address these challenges (Mann and Ornstein 2012). But while there is widespread agreement that our national government is not working well and has not been working well for some time, there is considerable disagreement about the causes of this problem and what, if anything, can be done to remedy it.
Some scholars and observers of American politics have laid the blame for gridlock in Washington squarely on the nation's political leaders. According to this view, the problem affecting American government today is excessive partisanship: Democratic and Republican elected officials are unwilling to compromise with each other in order to address the nation's pressing problems because they are primarily concerned about protecting their own power and positions in Washington, and they fear a backlash from party leaders, liberal or conservative media outlets, financial contributors, and ideologically extreme primary voters if they are seen as cooperating with members of the opposing party. The solution, according to this theory, is to change the rules of Congress and/or the electoral process to reduce the incentives for partisan behavior and increase the incentives for bipartisan compromise (Edwards 2012; Eilperin 2006).
In this article, I will present evidence that this elitist theory of government dysfunction is deeply flawed. While party leaders, media outlets, financial contributors, and primary voters have played a role in the development of gridlock, they are not the main causes of dysfunctional government in Washington. As a result, reform proposals that focus primarily on changing electoral rules or congressional procedures are unlikely to be effective in reducing gridlock. The main cause of dysfunctional government in Washington today is partisan polarization--the deep ideological divide that exists between Democrats and Republicans--and that ideological divide in turn reflects the existence of deep divisions within American society.
The Rise of Partisan Polarization and Its Consequences
There is widespread agreement among students of American politics that the ideological divide between the Democratic and Republican Parties in Congress has widened considerably over the past several decades (Dodd and Oppenheimer 2009; Sinclair 2009). Perhaps the most important evidence of this comes from the statistical analyses of congressional voting patterns by political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal (1997). Their methodology extracts the dimensions underlying the voting patterns in each Congress. In the modern era, the first and most important of these dimensions--the one that accounts for by far the largest share of the variance in congressional voting--corresponds to the liberal--conservative divide over the size of the welfare state and role of the federal government in the economy.
Poole and Rosenthal's DW-Nominate scale measures the locations of members of the Senate and House of Representatives on the first dimension extracted from all of the recorded votes in each Congress. This score measures the position of each member on a liberal-conservative continuum that ranges from -1 on the far left to +1 on the far right. We can therefore use this scale to measure the distance between the average Democrat and the average Republican in each chamber in each Congress.
The data displayed in Figure 1 show very clearly that over the past 36 years, there has been a substantial increase in the distance between the parties in both chambers and especially in the House of Representatives: the distance between the average Democrat and the average Republican almost doubled between the Ninety-Fifth House (1977-79) and the 112th House (2011-13), while the distance between the average Democrat and the average Republican increased by almost 50% between the Ninety-Fifth Senate and the 112th Senate. However, both parties were not equally responsible for this increase in ideological polarization. The data in Figure 1 clearly show that the rightward shift of the Republican Party over these years was much greater than the leftward shift of the Democratic Party. In fact, over 80% of the increase in the size of the ideological divide in the House, and over 70% of the increase in the Senate was a result of the rightward shift in the location of the average Republican.
The growing ideological divide between the parties in the House and Senate has had profound consequences for the congressional decision-making process. These consequences have been especially significant during periods of divided party control of Congress. In the Ninety-Seventh Congress, following the 1980 presidential election, Republicans held a majority of seats in the Senate, while Democrats held a majority of seats in the House. In the 112th Congress, following the 2010 midterm election, Republicans held a majority of seats in the House while Democrats held a majority of seats in the Senate. But despite the superficial similarity between these two congresses, the deep ideological divide between the parties in the 112th House and Senate made any sort of bipartisan compromise much more difficult than in the Ninety-Seventh Congress.
The data displayed in Table 1 show that the proportion of moderates, defined here as members with scores between -.25 and +.25 on the DW-Nominate scale, declined dramatically between the Ninety-Seventh Congress, the last time when there was divided party control of Congress for an extended period of time, and the 112th Congress. In the Ninety-Seventh Congress, moderates made up 43% of the members of both chambers and a large proportion of members of both parties in the House as well as the Senate. In contrast, in the 112th Congress, moderates made up only 15 % of members of the Senate and only 5 % of members of the House. The decline was especially steep for Republicans. There was only one moderate Republican in the 112th House and only five moderate Republicans in the 112th Senate.
The dramatic decline in the number of moderates and the growing ideological divide between the parties in both the House and Senate has made bipartisan compromise much more difficult in both chambers. It was much easier for Democrats and Republicans to come together 30 years ago when the ideological distance between them was much smaller. Today, reaching across the aisle requires reaching much further than in 1981-83. This does not matter very much in the House of Representatives where the majority party can easily pass legislation without any help from the minority party as long as long as it remains unified. But it matters a great deal in the Senate because it makes filibustering much more attractive to members of the minority party. Not only is the ideological distance between the median Democrat and the median Republican much greater now, but it is much more difficult now for the majority party to obtain 60 votes to invoke cloture because the ideological distance between the majority pivot and the filibuster pivot is much greater today than it was in the Ninety-Seventh Senate.
However, the difficulties posed by growing ideological polarization within each chamber are not the only causes of gridlock in Washington. What is just as important if not more important is the sharp ideological divide between the president and the median member of the House of Representatives and between the median member of the House and the median member of the Senate. In the Ninety-Seventh Congress, there were a large number of moderate-to-conservative Democrats in the House of Representatives who were willing to cooperate with President Ronald Reagan to pass at least some of the key elements of his domestic agenda such as large cuts in tax rates. At the same time, the relatively narrow ideological gap between the median member of the House and the median member of the Senate made it relatively easy to resolve differences between the two chambers.
In contrast, in the 112th Congress, there were almost no Republicans in the House of Representatives who were willing to cooperate with President Barack Obama to pass any parts of his domestic agenda. At the same time, there was little or no chance that the president or the Democratic majority in the Senate would support any policy proposals favored by the Republican majority in the House. The ideological divide between the president and the median member of the Senate on one side and the median member of the House on the other side was simply too great to bridge. And there is no reason to think that the situation is going to be different in the 113th Congress, which continues to have a very conservative Republican majority in the House and a Democratic majority in the Senate. The combination of ideological polarization and divided government is a nearly sure-fire recipe for conflict and gridlock, especially when the ideological divide between the executive and legislative branches is compounded by a large ideological divide between the two houses of Congress (Binder 1999).
Explaining Gridlock: The Changing Electoral Environment
The fundamental cause of gridlock in Washington is the fact that Democrats and Republicans disagree sharply on almost every major issue facing the country from taxes and spending to gay rights and abortion. Moreover, there has been an increase in the consistency of positions on economic and cultural issues over time so that those who are liberal on economic issues are increasingly likely to be liberal on cultural issues, while...