Polarized, not paralyzed: why states can get things done when Congress can't.

Author:Kurtz, Karl

Many Americans' image of the legislative process is based on Congress, which for nearly a decade has had difficulty passing laws regardless of which party is in control or who sits in the Oval Office. Negotiation and compromise between the parties have largely disappeared in Washington, D.C.


The public, the news media and others blame political polarization for much of the obstruction and grid lock. But is polarization the only culprit? After all, it's possible to negotiate policy agreements despite being ideologically divided. Just look at state legislatures.

Lawmakers and governors operate in state capita ls in the same polarized world. Yet most still manage to negotiate their differences, reach settlements on significant issues and enact public policy.

The closeness of the two parties and shifting control of the executive and legislative branches influences partisan conflict, but exactly how is a matter of disagreement. In her recent book "Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign," political scientist Frances Lee argues that at the national level, highly competitive political parties and frequent changes in control of the White House and Congress are what drive partisan conflict, impede cooperation and lead to stalemate.

But at the state level, many say the opposite is happen in g. Veteran lawmakers say close majorities often elicit more cooperation and collaboration. Former Colorado Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst (D) has observed that when margins are narrow in Colorado's legislative chambers, "members must be more moderate."

The same holds true in other states where control of the legislature switches often. When majorities are slim and caucuses aren't totally united, leaders have to reach out to the other party to find enough support.

Rules to Live By

Unlike Congress, state legislatures have several constitutional and procedural rules that help them get things done.

Fixed adjournment dates in 42 states force timely action and prevent procrastination. Part-time citizen legislatures limit the length of their sessions. Lawmakers go to the capital for a short time to do the public's business, then return to live and work in their communities, where relationships and connections transcend politics.

Deadlines are powerful motivators as well. From bill introductions to conference committee action, and every step along the way, deadlines keep the process flowing in three-quarters of state chambers.

Balanced-budget requirements aid in reaching agreement on the most important measure of any legislative session-the budget. Trying to balance the budget often brings opposing sides together, and in some states it sets the tone for other issues.


Maintaining a high state bond rating is a "compelling force that transcends party," one Virginia staffer says, adding that it provides the "come to Jesus" moment at the end of budget negotiations.

Single-subject rules that require bills to focus on only one issue can also help streamline the process. And rules requiring amendments to be relevant help to prevent diversionary tactics. In Colorado, for example, there is bipartisan pride in the single-subject rule, and members police one another on it.

Committee hearings are required for all bills in 22 of the 99 legislative chambers. Hearings keep the process moving and offer some fairness to members of the minority party. Hearings also assure constituents that their concerns are...

To continue reading