This week, Congress may greet the new (fiscal) year, which began on October 1, with a period of reflection and atonement. As of today, the House has passed six out of twelve appropriations bills, the Senate just one. This week, with days to spare, Congress granted itself a seven-week extension after narrowly avoiding a complete shutdown over FEMA funding. Since Congressional poll ratings were already extremely low, this narrow escape from a government shutdown has renewed criticism of Congressional dysfunction, e.g. Tom Friedman, Peter Orszag, and Ezra Klein.
The source of most public frustration is that Congress struggles to compromise on solutions to major problems or even routine “maintenance” legislation. Both scholars and media reports blame this on ideological polarization: Republicans and Democrats just have starkly different views of how this country should be governed. But this does not explain why a) the parties also cannot agree on proposals that they essentially agree on, e.g. tax cuts for small business, or setting up a budget commission (circa January 2010). Nor does it explain why, despite their differences, they do not quickly arrive at the inevitable compromises immediately rather than the slow, nerve-rattling, edge-of-the-abyss negotiations we observe.
The most recent edition of the Journal of Politics includes an article by Philip Jones that, in my view, does a lot to explain Congressional dysfunction. ”Which Buck Stops Here?” (ungated) tests whether voters’ decisions in the 2006 Senate elections were based on incumbent senators’ policy positions, or the state of the national economy and the occupation of Iraq. Even controlling for party affiliation and ideological similarity, Jones finds that voters weighed policy positions in their vote choices, while “peace and prosperity” outcomes had little impact on voters’ support for incumbent senators. Figure 1 displays these findings: the nearly flat lines for the first two charts show the minimal effect of policy outcomes on vote choice, while the steep upward slope of the bottom figure illustrates how the more voters agree with senators on policy positions, the more likely they were to vote for the incumbent.
The article goes on to compare the effects for Republican and Democratic Senators, and to demonstrate that election analyses that that only test for the effects of policy outcomes without considering candidates’ policy positions are likely to reach the wrong conclusions.
As Jones points out, these results are a “relief” to members of Congress, who have little personal control over collective policy outcomes but do control their portfolio of issue positions. On the other hand, these results also help explain why it is so hard for members of Congress to compromise (say, on FY2012 appropriations bills): deviating from their policy positions to achieve a compromise may have significant electoral costs with little political gain for actually getting something done.