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Study: Partisan Polarization Helps Congress Pass Bills

Reaching counterintuitive findings, a group of researchers found polarization does not cause legislative deadlock and in fact may increase the number of bills passed in a legislative body.

(CN) – Reaching counterintuitive findings, a group of researchers found polarization does not cause legislative deadlock and in fact may increase the number of bills passed in a legislative body.

Political scientists from Michigan State and the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research published a study Thursday in Scientific Reports that found coalitions of lawmakers – not political parties – are more responsible for advancing legislation in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives.

"We usually think of the Congress as organized around political parties, but we found that it makes more sense to think about coalitions," said Zachary Neal, associate professor of psychology and co-author of the study. "Coalitions are often partisan, with their members all coming from the same political party. But, coalitions can be bipartisan too.”

For instance, some left-leaning members of the Republican Party from districts that may not demand a hard-right representative tend to form coalitions with similar members from the Democratic Party on a given bill.

Similarly, right-leaning Democrats from places with a more conservative bent may be inclined to join up with Republicans on given issues.

“There are cases of left-leaning coalitions composed mostly of Democrats but that include some Republicans, and some cases of right-leaning coalitions composed mostly of Republicans but that include some Democrats,” Neal said.

Quorum, an analytics firm, published a Congressional Activity Report in 2018 that found 70% of the bills passed by the 115th Congress were bipartisan, the highest percentage of the 20 previous years.

The percentage had risen steadily since 2012, when only 50% of the bills carried the signature of at least one Republican and one Democrat.

While rhetoric, particularly from the White House, has grown increasingly partisan in the last decade, with media outlets settling in various camps serving to only exacerbate the perception that polarization has colonized the legislative branch, the reality according to the latest research is that coalitions are more dynamic than political parties and are not as subject to ideological orthodoxies.

Models developed by the Max Planck Institute show the coalitions of legislators who consistently co-sponsor each other’s bills and finds these alliances in both the Senate and the House transcend political party.

"Most people think of all Republican legislators working together and all Democratic legislators working together," said Samin Aref, research area chair in the Laboratory for Digital and Computational Demography at the Max Planck Institute. "We used our new optimization models to identify coalitions and then asked, 'Does thinking about coalitions tell us more about how Congress works than thinking about parties?' And for the House of Representatives, it does."

The research does not take into account which bills are eventually signed into law, only how bills are passed out of a given legislative house.

Aref said the models show that partisanship actually helps rather than hinders bills’ passage in the houses.

“Partisan coalitions have actually helped the work get done in the U.S. House of Representatives,” Aref said. “In fact, the House would be even more ineffective at passing bills if it weren't for the high levels of partisanship."

But that’s not to say such febrile polarization doesn’t contribute to legislative instability. Such adversarial approaches by different political parties increase the chances that bills that are passed in a given year end up being overturned when a different party comes to power, the researchers said.

"Partisanship may help Congress pass bills into law, but that doesn't mean future Congresses with different views won't overturn them," Aref said. "So, partisan polarization may only have short-term benefits; still, the trends in our data suggest the current trend toward a divide along party lines is likely to continue."

But Aref and the other researchers are confident they have uncovered a model that can help political analysts transcend a pure party view and take a closer look at the associations driving legislative efficiency in the 21st century.

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