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Partisans Poison Congress

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The political news is currently fixated on the midterm elections. Which candidates will win? How many seats will the Republicans win from the Democrats? How strong is the Tea Party?

This election will be like any other in that there will be the usual expressions of fear by each party before the election if the other party wins followed the day after by the rhetoric of working with that party to move the country forward. To motivate their respective bases to vote, the two parties will also express how important this election is compared to others.

But in one sense, there may not be as much at stake in this election as in previous elections. Why? Congress has become so partisan that a shift in party demographics in either direction will still lead to repeated stalemates and a general lack of progress. Such a conclusion may seem counterintuitive, considering the major legislation passed in the last two years (e.g., health care reform and bank reform), but rising partisanship results in a greater inability to pass legislation and fill vacancies which then necessitates other parts of the government to undertake these procedures without Congress.

The increasing partisanship is reflected by the increased use of the filibuster. The research of UCLA political scientist Barbara Sinclair indicates there was about one filibuster for every two-year Congressional session during the 1950s. However, the number of filibusters has grown over time with the Congressional session in 2007 and 2008 having 52. Robert Schlesinger of US News and World Report further noted that according to Sinclair in contrast to the 1960s when 8 percent of major legislation was subject to extended debate issues such as filibusters, 70 percent of major legislation was in 2007 and 2008.

The increased partisanship is also evidenced by the percent of votes a party member makes with his or her party. In the 102nd Congress (1991 and 1992), the percentage of votes of party members with their respective party was 81.2 percent for the House and 80.7 percent for the Senate. In the current 111th Congress, the equivalent for the House was up to 90.6 percent and 88.1 percent for the Senate.

As stated, severe partisanship prevents the passage of legislation and confirmation of appointments Đ forcing such business to be handled without Congress at the state level. The most notable example of this is the issue of immigration. Due to an unwillingness to compromise, immigration reform has been blocked for some time. The lack of legislation has provided opportunities for those to tap into growing discontent (because of the economy) with Arizona passing its own law on immigration and other states like Pennsylvania thinking of doing the same. In a way, Congress’ inability to come to a consensus is indicative of an inadvertent shift back toward federalism.

Another example of governing institutions acting in place of a deadlocked Congress is in the usage of intrasession recess appointments. These are made by the President while the Congress is in recess during a Congressional session that allow nominees to avoid the confirmation process. Its constitutionality is at best unclear; some legal scholars interpret that recess appointments are only for positions that become vacant during a recess. They are especially dubious since the recesses during Congressional sessions are so short. Nevertheless, such appointments have become increasingly used for appointees who are or would be held by the opposition party. While Nixon/Ford made only eight during their combined eight years as Presidents from 1969 to 1977, Ronald Reagan made 73 in his two terms during the 1980s and George W. Bush made 141 such appointments during his Presidency.

Although the U.S. Constitution was written with the idea that the governments’ different parts would attempt to grab power from each other, this competition was supposed to ensure a balance of power. The rising partisanship in Congress, however, threatens to upset this balance. While the concentration of media coverage in the coming months will be on campaign missteps, sound bites, polls, hot button issues and the policy implications of the results, one of the most important headlines of the history books for this period may be the sad decline of the U.S. Congress.

Wesley Oliphant is an economics graduate student. He can be reached at