Why Does Congress Do So Little?

The structural incentives for “losing to win.”

One of the many curious results of the recent election is that while Donald Trump received enough electoral votes to win the White House, handing the Republican Party unified control of government, the GOP’s majorities in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate narrowed. Usually, in American history, a winning president’s party has gained seats in Congress. Yet the reverse has been happening with greater frequency in recent election cycles: George H. W. Bush in 1988, Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, George W. Bush in 2000, and now Trump in 2016.

Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign by Frances E. Lee University of Chicago Press, 248 pp.

Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign by Frances E. Lee University of Chicago Press, 248 pp.

This is part of a larger pattern of congressional control seesawing between the two parties, thanks to an electorate that is split roughly in half and has been growing ever more partisan. Most observers are saying that the GOP’s lock on Congress is secure, and that may be true; Democrats are likely to lose Senate seats in 2018, given that so many more Democratic senators face reelection that year. In general, however, the majority party tends to lose seats in off-year elections. If the Trump administration makes a hash of things (that would never happen, right?) and the public becomes disillusioned, Democrats could win back the House in 2018. And there is no telling which party will have control of either house after the 2020 campaign.

In her new book, Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign, Frances E. Lee, a University of Maryland political science professor and longtime congressional scholar, argues persuasively that this pattern of constant shifting of congressional control is an underappreciated structural reason for why the institution hasn’t gotten much done. With the parties at roughly equal strength nationally—there hasn’t been a presidential landslide since Ronald Reagan clobbered Walter Mondale in 1984—and congressional majorities being relatively narrow, lawmakers in both parties do less legislating and more “losing to win,” casting show votes intended mostly to yield fodder for campaign ads. But what makes political sense for parties makes no sense for the health of the institution. Several national polls put Congress’s job approval rate at a meager 12 percent.

It’s possible that the Republicans will get a great deal done over the next two years, just as the Democrats did during President Obama’s first two years. There is also the opposite possibility. At forty-seven seats, the GOP majority in the House is not especially large by historical standards, and the Republican caucus is deeply riven ideologically. The GOP controls the Senate by only a two-vote majority—counting the vice president. That’s far below the sixty votes needed to overcome a filibuster, and Mitch McConnell and the majority in the Senate don’t seem eager to end that practice. It is therefore possible to imagine Democrats being able to thwart much of what they consider to be the worst of the Donald Trump/Paul Ryan agenda.

The pattern of volatile congressional control and gridlock has been going on for so long that it’s worth remembering how different things used to be. From 1932 to 1980, Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate for all but two brief stretches. The White House was in Democratic hands for two-thirds of that time. Democrats came to assume that they’d always be in charge, and Republicans more or less did too. With nothing to lose and something to gain, GOP lawmakers generally worked with Democrats, trading favors, compromising, and passing legislation.

Then, in the 1980 Reagan landslide, Republicans took back the Senate, and held it for six years. Over the next few cycles, control of the institution flipped back and forth, with the GOP taking the House in 1994 after more than forty years in the minority. Both parties found that with power on the line, they had less incentive to work together, and far more reason to demonize the other team, denying them wins even on policy they might otherwise support.

Lee found no evidence that there was any difference between the way Republicans and Democrats behaved when in the minority or majority in this regard. Ideology didn’t seem to come as much into play as we might expect—according to her data, being a moderate in either party doesn’t necessarily make a lawmaker much more likely to work with the other party, regardless of what he or she actually thinks of the legislation at hand. “In other words,” Lee writes, “not all party conflict is ‘polarization’ stemming from a widening gap between the two parties’ policy preferences. Instead, much party conflict in the contemporary Congress is strategically engineered in the quest for political advantage as the two parties do battle for majority control.”

Support for her thesis comes from the short period at mid-century after Democrats had lost their majorities under Harry Truman in 1946. The Republican majority in Congress blocked nearly everything Truman wanted to do, and wouldn’t take up the civil rights legislation that he saw as a priority. So he called for a special session of Congress, ostensibly “to ask the Republican majority to act on its own party platform,” Lee writes, but “he was under no illusion that Congress would actually pass legislation. Truman’s goal was party messaging, and the resulting deadlock yielded his campaign theme of the ‘do-nothing 80th Congress.’ ”

It worked. Democrats regained both the House and the Senate in 1948. Truman, who had been serving as vice president when FDR died in 1945 and had himself been deeply unpopular, was also elected in his own right—
unexpectedly, as we know from the iconic and premature “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline.

Posturing for political party gain was also a factor in the red-baiting of the era, Lee argues, and it was why Republicans tolerated Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunts for so long. Ohio Senator Robert Taft urged the senator from Wisconsin to keep those accusations coming: “If one case doesn’t work out, then bring up another,” he is reported to have said.

That particular period of intense competition for control ended with the Democrats’ big win in the 1958 midterms, and their dominance lasted at least until 1980, and arguably until Gingrich’s 1994 revolution. Many Republicans didn’t really believe they’d pull off that ’94 win, either; Lee found that one reason so many Republicans signed Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” before the election is that they didn’t think they’d actually take control and then have to live up to their promises to cut congressional staff, set term limits, and vote to require a balanced budget, overhaul Social Security, and reform the welfare system.

Since 1994, relatively narrow majorities and intense competition have remained the norm, even after the aggressive gerrymandering and the 2010 redistricting that made it significantly harder for Democrats to retake
the House.

For those of us who thought it was Gingrich who brought back more combative partisanship, Lee explains that, no, the über-institutionalist Democratic Senator Robert Byrd did it first, after his party’s 1980 Senate losses. The Senate Democratic Caucus, which rarely had reason to meet when it was likely to stay in charge, suddenly became active under Byrd’s leadership, and began strategizing about how to win back control.

Because his party needed to build a record of opposing President Reagan after their ’80 losses, Byrd said later, “I told my colleagues . . . that they should go down there and offer their alternatives even though they knew they would be voted down. What looked like defeat after defeat in 1981 would look differently a year and a half down the road.” While it took a bit longer than that—the Democrats gained only one Senate seat in 1982—in 1986 Byrd’s party won back the majority.

Insecure Majorities isn’t meant to be a page-turner—it’s written for an academic audience. But there’s some amusing stuff from the author’s interviews with congressional aides. At one point she asks them, for instance, how important it is to be in the majority party: “Without the majority,” one says, “you have nothing.”

Since that’s the case, “messaging”—to either take or maintain control—becomes the top priority. That’s why “it’s self-defeating to work in a collaborative way,” one longtime House leadership staffer tells her. “You want to stigmatize the opposition. . . . The stakes are huge, so you do this all the time.”

Supporters may believe what members and staff admit is, in large part, posturing. But over time, Americans have lost respect for Congress as a result of the bipartisan refusal of lawmakers to put country before party. In the end, Lee even wonders whether having a system in which one party is in the permanent majority might be preferable, because then the two sides could go back to working together for the good of the Republic. She also notes that voters aren’t about to hand the government to either party anytime soon.

But her book was published before this past election, and now the GOP has swept the table. We’ll see how long
that lasts.

Melinda Henneberger

Melinda Henneberger is an opinion writer for USA Today and a visiting fellow at the Catholic University of America’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.