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Reviews |  Why Democrats Have Problems in Congress

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Despite the party’s control over Congress and the Presidency, Democrats still struggle to implement their agenda. The bipartisan infrastructure deal is stuck in the House, and the sweeping $ 3.5 trillion reconciliation plan has been the source of bitter disputes among party members.

The Biden administration left with hopes of a big and bold change – “transformational” was the word in winter and spring. But in the fall, “disarray” is omnipresent.

We’re not surprised that one-party control hasn’t allowed Democrats to move their agenda quickly or easily. Our research shows that Parties with unified control in Washington consistently fail to implement many of their highest priorities. They are usually forced to make significant compromises in order to pass any of their agenda items.

This has been true in all recent cases where a party held unified control of the government. In 2017, the Republicans’ failure to reach consensus within the party resulted in a stark collapse – punctuated by John McCain’s thumbs down – of the party’s efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare. Later that year, Republican leaders had to downgrade their visions for tax reform to pass the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. In 2010, major disagreements within the Democratic Party undermined and ultimately wiped out their cap-and-trade program plans to tackle climate change. For the Affordable Care Act to cross the finish line, many Democrats had to pass a bill that fell short of their aspirations – failure to establish a public insurance option still stings. many liberals.

Why do the unified majorities in Washington often struggle and fail to implement their agendas? In our research, we followed the successes and failures of majority parties in Congress on their political goals from 1985 to 2018 (265 agenda items in total). The study covers the last periods of unified party government in Washington – those that occurred during the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

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We find that parties with unified control in Washington since the Clinton years have struggled for two reasons.

Systematic obstruction explains some of the struggles of the majority parties. Senate rules require most laws to get 60 votes to be voted on. As a result, minority parties have the option of vetoing or reshaping most laws. Yet even though this is a constant source of discussion and debate in today’s Washington, we find that filibuster has only been the cause of one-third of failed attempts by majority parties to implement their priorities during the unified government since 1993.

The second reason is less appreciated but explains the other two thirds – a large majority – failures. The two parties have been and remain internally divided on many issues. Parties are often able to hide their disagreements by simply not passing legislation on issues that give rise to significant cracks. But when these issues reflect their campaign promises, majority parties often move forward even in the absence of internal consensus on a plan.

Whether Democrat or Republican, the party with unified control in Washington in recent years has failed on one or more of its highest priority agenda items due to insufficient unity within its own ranks. . In 2017, Republicans did not repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act due to opposition from three Senate Republicans (Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Mr. McCain). In 2009-10, Democrats did not adopt a cap-and-trade policy due to feuds between Coastal Democrats and those representing the interior of the country. In 2005, Republicans failed to reform Social Security despite President Bush making it his national legislative priority due to a lack of consensus within the party on how to proceed. During Mr. Clinton’s first term, Democrats were never able to unite behind a single plan to pass comprehensive health care reform despite relatively large majorities in both houses.

What Democrats are trying to do with their Build Back Better effort today is even more difficult than usual. Rarely has Congress tried to pass more than one budget reconciliation bill in a two-year Congress. In March, Democrats used reconciliation to pass the US bailout in straight-line votes; there is no precedent for successfully enacting two such ambitious partisan reconciliation bills in a single year. Going a second sweep pack with razor-thin majorities should be considered a long shot. The fact that the party is furiously negotiating a lean version suggests the importance it has attached to its success, for both electoral and political reasons.

Parties campaign on ambitious policy proposals. But it is much easier to agree to a campaign plan than to go along with specific legislation. The devil is in the details. If the Democrats somehow avoid the failure of the large-scale agenda and pass both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a radical reconciliation bill, they will have done something. rare – they will have surpassed all other recent episodes of one-party control of the national government.

James M. Curry, associate professor of political science at the University of Utah, and Frances E. Lee, professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton, are the authors of “The Limits of Party: Congress and Lawmaking in a Polarized Era. “

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