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The Limits of Working Together

New book explores sources of Congress’ gridlock

By Liam Farrell


Illustration by Steffanie Espat

Illustration by Steffanie Espat

In 1951, political analyst Samuel Lubell described the American political system as having a “sun” and a “moon,” with one party dominating the national agenda for long stretches of time.

Frances LeeThat vision hardly seems relevant today, as the U.S. Congress struggles to even keep the doors of government open. Democrats and Republicans are scrapping over every congressional seat this fall in hopes of piecing together a slim majority.

UMD government and politics Professor Frances Lee explains how this stalemate isn’t due to ideological differences alone in her new book, “Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign,” released Sept. 6. As the margin for control of Congress narrows, the competition encourages politicians to stop working together.

“You deal with the issues you have to deal with,” she says, “but beyond that, you kick the can down the road in hopes that you will be in a better position two years from now.”

In a conversation with Terp, Lee discussed how the congressional landscape has shifted since 1980 and how both parties have increased partisan strategizing to avoid becoming America’s moon.

TERP: What made 1980 the turning point in how members of Congress strategize and function?

Lee: The Democrats lost their Senate majority. This was the first time since 1954 that Democrats had not controlled both chambers of Congress. In addition, you had the election of Ronald Reagan, a sweeping victory across the country. Republicans for decades had seen themselves as a minority party nationally, and that shaped their sense of what was possible. 1980 raised their estimate of what they could achieve, but 1980 did not lower Democrats’ sense of what was possible for them.

TERP: How were the Republicans and Democrats caught off-guard by this?

Lee: Democrats had been in power basically since 1932. You are talking about half a century of Democratic dominance in Washington. You should also factor in the much less nationalized state of our politics during that time period. There was less monitoring of all the congressional races. There weren’t the national groups that fund congressional elections, and the Hill committees were a paltry shadow of what they’ve become.

TERP: Do you think this is a cycle that’s been feeding on itself?

Lee: Yes, I do. Inside Congress, you’ve seen the development of institutionalized public relations operations attached to both political parties in both chambers. A large staff of people is employed for the purpose of coming up with partisan attacks.

I also think it’s self-perpetuating in that both parties have grown much stronger across the board, organizationally. In the races that happen in the swing states and swing districts, most of the money used in those campaigns flows in from the outside. When majority control could switch, that’s when there are national stakes in congressional elections, and that brings national groups and money into the action.

TERP: You write that bipartisan legislation is a “grant of legitimacy” from the minority to the majority. In that situation, the obvious question is, how is Congress ever going to get things done if passing legislation is seen in such a negative light?

Lee: Our political system requires bipartisanship to function. It’s very decentralized, there are lots of checks and balances; it’s bicameral. So when legislation happens, it wins support from both parties—that’s historically how national politics has worked, and that’s still how it works. If the “out” party wants to retake power from the “in” party, it has to give reasons to the voters for doing so. It’s hard to do that if they are working productively with them on legislation.

TERP: Ultimately, government is supposed to be a reflection of its people’s will. Do you think that the current status is more reflective of the American public’s attitudes?

Lee: People are disgusted by the amount of conflict that they see. Some of the public’s disgust is unjustified. This is a big country, and there is wide diversity of views about the proper role of government, and Congress reflects that diversity in ways that the broader public may not fully appreciate. People tend to self-segregate, and so they tend to know other people who think like themselves.

But competition between the parties for control of national government encourages them to engage in conflict with one another, and that’s going to go beyond the disagreements that are already present. It creates incentives that promote conflict in excess of what it should be if Congress just mirrored opinion in the country as a whole.

TERP: Is there a way to fix this situation by reforming Congress internally? In terms of changing rules, how votes are held, the allowance of staffing dollars?

Lee: Anything we do would be at the margins. The big story in national politics, in my reading, is of a power struggle between two parties that are evenly matched. As long as the American people are as closely divided between two parties as they are, it’s hard for me to see any big shifts in how things operate.

In some ways, that just reflects the state of public opinion in a 50-50 country. We have a system of government that requires supermajority support to do things—it goes beyond the filibuster in the Senate. It’s the whole structure, the possibility you can have a Congress controlled by one party and the presidency by another, and that being the normal state of affairs since 1980. The default under these conditions is not to do very much.

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