Click for:  Debate: How partisan is Congress?

The changing significance of parties in Congress

One of the most important developments in recent years is the polarisation of parties, as Democrat and Republican parties have moved further apart in terms of values and policies. This fits closely with another important development - increased partisanship, in which each party is becoming more internally united, in opposition to the other party.

To what extent does partisanship exist?

Since the 1970s, both Democrats and Republicans have become increasingly unified.. The Republican Party was criticised for excessive partisanship during the Obama presidency, with some politicians seeming to oppose any policy supported by Obama. For example, the then-House Budget committee Chair Tom Price refused to begin committee - consideration of Obama's final $4-trillion-budget proposal. Party unity scores are calculated by looking at the number of times a member of Congress votes with the majority in their own party. In Congress, the average unity in the 113th Congress (2012-14) was 92 percent - for the Democrats and 90 percent for Republicans - a record for sustained party discipline unmatched in the House in the history of our party unity studies', according to the Congressional Quarterly. Voting between parties has become more divergent than at any other period since the Second World War. In addition, the political middle has disappeared, with declines in moderate conservatives and Blue Dog Democrats, who represent a crossover between the two parties.

The implication of partisanship

Legislative gridlock. The determination to act as a unified group and oppose the other political party has reduced the ability of Congress to pass legislation.

Government gridlock: government can not govern effectively: The failure to compromise has led to government shutdowns.  significant shutdowns in U.S. history have included the 21-day shutdown of 1995–1996 during the Bill Clinton administration over opposition to major spending cuts; the 16-day shutdown in 2013 during the Barack Obama administration caused by a dispute over implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; and the 35-day shutdown of 2018-2019 during the Donald Trump administration, the longest shutdown in US history, caused by a dispute over the funding amount for an expansion of the U.S.–Mexico border barrier. The US government on 28th September 2023, declared that a shutdown was 'imminent', being a first during the Biden Presidency. 

■ Oversight. The increase in partisanship affects presidential power. Under divided government the president’s policy initiatives are aggressively opposed, leaving the president extremely limited. This can be seen in the Obama presidency between  2010 and 2016. Under unified government with one party holding the presidency, House and Senate, congressional politicians have been accused of failing to operate their constitutional role in providing oversight and provide significant checks on the executive. In 2017, the Senate was accused of failing to provide full scrutiny of several Trump cabinet nominations given the speed of ratification and the lack of provision of full background checks before votes took place.

■ Representation. There is also a debate about the impact this has upon the representative function of Congress, with politicians being accused of sacrificing the needs of voters for party political point scoring.

October 3rd 2023 -Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was ousted as House speaker after failing to withstand a rebellion among far-right dissidents, as the House voted for the first time in history to remove its leader and entered a period of unpredictability and paralysis. McCarthy later announced he would not seek the position again, setting up an expected intraparty battle for the position second in line to the presidency. 

This has never happened before  in the more-than-240-year history of the House of Representatives. An increasingly radicalized Republican faction that, emboldened since the rise of the tea party, has repeatedly shut down the government and led the country to the brink of a default on its debt. The increased polarization and radicalism in (mostly Republican)  party politics has undermined the traditionally powerful position of the Speaker and given further evidence for the disfunction of Congress.