Dysfunction

Recent years have seen breakdowns in Congress's ability solve public problems, even with measures that previously were uncontroversial. The 2013 government shutdown is the highest-profile example of this phenomenon, but we see it over and over on matters both large and small. Party polarization is an obvious culprit, but there's nothing about what polarization means – parties that are internally homogenous ideologically but unlike one another, presenting distinct policy platforms to voters – that should necessarily lead to the kind of brinkmanship lawmaking that characterizes current congressional operations. Intensified partisan warfare has influenced members' floor behavior, but members in such an environment still should be able to obtain and use good information to pursue their partisan ends; that they are failing to do so suggests that something else is happening.


Over the past several years I have been engaged with a large-scale research project with Sean Theriault and Bryan Jones to more precisely and define congressional dysfunction from an information processing perspective. This project entails collecting and coding data from over 20,000 congressional committee hearings to evaluate whether the information committees take in and transmit to the rest of the chamber has changed since the 1970s. Overall we find that committees are holding dramatically fewer hearings on policy solutions (broadly defined to include non-legislative proposals) today. Hearings also have become more one-sided and less balanced and analytical over time. Our research so far has produced several manuscripts:

Lewallen, Jonathan, Sean M. Theriault, and Bryan D. Jones. 2016. "Congressional Dysfunction: An Information Processing Perspective.Regulation & Governance, 179-90.

This article lays out our argument and briefly discusses the fruits of our data collection effort. We then use these findings to generate recommendations for creating more legislative workhorses and fewer partisan warriors within Congress.

"Congressional Dysfunction and the Decline of Problem Solving." (Currently under review, also presented at the 2016 SPSA Annual Meeting, 2015 MPSA Annual Meeting, and 2014 APSA Annual Meeting.)

This paper supplements our argument about the relationship between committee information processing changes and congressional dysfunction with committee hearings data from 1971 to 2008. We find that changes to committee hearings result from stronger parties and partisan warriors within Congress, and produce brinkmanship dealmaking and stopgap lawmaking. Our presentation at the 2015 Midwest Political Science Association conference is on YouTube.



E-mail: jlewallen@utexas.edu
Twitter: @jonlewallen
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