Factors that Mitigate the Effects of Polarization
We asked all of our interviewees what factors help them to overcome the effects of polarization and continue to enact policy.
Constitutions and Rules
Many legislators cited the importance of single subject rules for bills and strict interpretations of germaneness. A Tennessee Senate leader said that attention to germaneness guards against diversions in the process that might otherwise undermine settlements on key issues. In Colorado there is bipartisan pride in the legislature’s single subject rule, and the members police each other on it. In Iowa, one leader commented, “The speaker is very consistent about whether an amendment is germane. His interpretation is narrow and well-known.” The Iowa speaker himself said, “I give a reason about why I rule an amendment germane or not germane every time,” as a matter of courtesy and to help members feel that they get a fair shake.
Forty state constitutions have a provision1 that requires a bill to address or contain a single subject. Three-quarters of them have rules about the germaneness of amendments and motions, although not all are interpreted as strictly as the examples from our case studies.
Twenty-two of the 99 state legislative chambers have a requirement2 that all bills be heard in committee. Legislators in Colorado, Maine and Tennessee particularly mentioned this provision as a matter of fairness to minority party members and a way to make sure that legislators can tell their constituents that their concerns have been heard.
All but two (Massachusetts and Wisconsin) of our 10 states have constitutionally required annual session adjournment dates. When comparing themselves to Congress, state legislators often cited this requirement as an advantage that forces timely action.
Closely related to limits to the length of legislative sessions is the notion of the part-time, citizen legislature in which legislators go to the capital for a (short) time to do the public’s business and then return to live and work in their communities. Lawmakers take great pride in their citizen legislatures and think that it makes a difference in their ability to get things done in a timely fashion. In states like Maine, Virginia and Tennessee, they cite the “supermarket effect”—citizen legislators constantly running into constituents on visits to the store—and the need to make a living outside the legislature as promoting relationships and connections that transcend politics.
In Massachusetts—the most full-time legislature among our case-study states—legislators say just the opposite. They believe the fact that they are in session most of the year and in the Statehouse together gives time to work on bills and resolve their differences. “We’re here to get things done,” said one legislator.
Because our sample of states contains only two of the full-time legislatures, we can’t resolve this difference of opinions about full-time vs. part-time legislatures.
Three-quarters of the state legislative chambers also employ deadlines3 for processing bills. These provisions typically include deadlines for bill introduction, committee action, action by the house of origin, action by the second house and conference committee actions. Minnesota legislators particularly mentioned their deadline system as an institutional mechanism that keeps the process flowing. In Tennessee, the Senate has a deadline system but the House does not. A Tennessee Senate leader commented that their system puts pressure on the House to work toward compromise.
In our discussion of budget settlements, we discussed legislators’ beliefs in the importance of state balanced budget requirements. Tennessee legislators not only talked about the balanced budget requirement’s importance for bringing opposing sides together on the budget, but also that it sets a precedent and provides an example on other issues.
Similarly, we mentioned the importance of rules that allow earmarks (sometimes known as “member items”) as a lubricant in reaching agreement on state budgets. We previously discussed Massachusetts’ “gazebos in town squares.” Virginia used to place earmarks for members’ favored projects in the non-state-agency portion of the budget, but in 2009 the state attorney general ruled that this practice was a violation of the state constitution. Artful and well-placed legislators are still able to place their pet projects directly into state agency budgets, but legislators and staff complain that it’s more difficult to do than in the past.
Regardless of the rules specific to particular states, legislators talked about the importance of fair and consistent application of rules in building trust. In congressional lingo, this is the equivalent of the “regular order”—an assurance, especially as a matter of fairness toward the minority, that rules and procedures will be followed consistently. And, as with Congress, in the few instances that we observed it, the practice of legislative leaders taking advantage of the power of the majority to change or ignore rules engenders distrust between majority and minority parties and exacerbates the effects of polarization.
Governors and Legislative Leaders
Many legislators told us that the role of leaders—whether in the executive or legislative branches—was crucial to the policymaking process. Speaking of leadership, long-time former Minnesota Senate majority leader Roger Moe said, “The legislative session is like a giant jigsaw puzzle. What’s the first thing you do with a jigsaw puzzle? You look at the picture on the front of the box to see how it is supposed to fit together. Good leaders help people see how the pieces fit together.”
The relationships between governors and the legislature, particularly the legislative leaders, often set the tone for policymaking in the states. In most states, governors are the single most powerful actors in the legislature because they set the agenda, submit a budget as a starting point for deliberation, and use the media attention they receive and their bully pulpit to influence public opinion.
The formal powers of governors in our 10 states vary widely from relatively weak Virginia governors, who are unique in being limited to only one four-year term, to powerful Tennessee governors, whose budgets receive only limited changes by the General Assembly. Wisconsin’s powerful governorship is known for its “Frankenstein veto”—the power to delete individual words from bills and thereby completely change their meaning. Governor Jim Doyle famously used his veto power to reduce a 272-word section of a bill to 20 words and in the process transferred several hundred million dollars from transportation to public schools.
Beyond the formal powers of chief executives, the relationships between governors and legislatures seem to be highly idiosyncratic to the personal characteristics and skills of individual governors. For example, veteran legislative leaders in Virginia describe their relationships with governors in highly personal terms, saying that the personality of the governor makes the biggest difference. Leaders of both parties generally described having had very positive relationships with Democratic governors Gerald Baliles, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and Republican Robert McDonnell. They reported that they had relatively poor communication with Democratic governors Doug Wilder and Terry McAuliffe and Republican Jim Gilmore. A long-time Republican leader said that he had met only twice with Governor McAuliffe in the first two months of 2015, compared to two or three times a week with Democratic predecessors Warner and Kaine and almost daily with Republican McDonnell. Governor McAuliffe meets weekly with Democratic leaders in the legislature but not with the majority party Republicans.
Legislators in Washington state described former Governor Christine Gregoire as someone who was skillful in facilitating agreement between Democrats and Republicans, but many viewed Governor Jay Inslee as a single-issue chief executive who doesn’t take the time to work with the Legislature. A former Iowa Republican leader said, “I used to have regular weekly meetings with Democratic Governor Tom Vilsack. Governor Vilsack brought people together.” In contrast, Republican Governor Terry Branstad meets only with the legislators from his own party. “He hasn’t worked to foster bipartisan relationships,” concluded this former leader.
In Tennessee, legislators regarded billionaire Republican Governor Bill Haslam as an outsider who is not heavily engaged in the legislative process. However, he held weekly breakfast meetings during sessions with the top leaders of both parties, and he and the two Republican presiding officers met for lunch at a restaurant near the capitol every Thursday as a public symbol of executive-legislative cooperation.
In his book, “The Best Job in Politics: Exploring how Governors Succeed as Policy Leaders,” political scientist Alan Rosenthal pointed to the importance of governors’ desires to leave a legacy. He said this desire to get things done and to take credit for legislative accomplishments leads them to moderate their positions and negotiate deals with legislatures. But he also noted that the new generation of governors faces a different set of circumstances than their predecessors, and this is largely due to increased partisanship and polarization. Under these circumstances, Rosenthal argued, the nature of policymaking is much different under unified government than under divided government. When the governor’s party controls both legislative chambers, they are less inclined to negotiate with the minority party.
Legislative leaders play major roles in determining the success or failure of legislative policymaking. Tennessee has a history of strong top leaders (with the title “speaker” in both House and Senate). They are the glue that holds the legislature together. They appoint all committee chairs and members and set the agenda for the legislative session. The character of the leaders is important to the cooperative tone that pervades the institution. Both speakers in 2015-16 delegated authority to their committee chairs and only become involved in negotiations on the most intractable issues. Both were political conservatives but also pragmatists who are inclined to seek settlements whenever possible rather than adhere to strict ideological positions.
Massachusetts’ two top leaders were completely opposite in style and approach. Speaker Robert DeLeo ran a tight ship, relying on his chief of staff, the majority leader and the ways and means committee chair for advice and guidance. The speaker viewed himself as an inclusive leader that bends over backward to accommodate diverse opinions. But House committee chairs were very respectful of the speaker and did not run bills that he did not support. The House functioned efficiently under his leadership and got things done. His critics said that power was concentrated in too few hands, he dictated priorities to the members, and there was little or no meaningful debate.
Massachusetts Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, on the other hand, believed in a shared leadership style that encompasses both majority and minority senators (the minority holds only five of 40 seats). His goal was to make the Senate more participatory and to empower committees and committee chairs. “We’re trying to undo the centralized power of the president’s office; it’s hard and it has to be gradual,” said President Rosenberg. “It’s a cultural shift that requires senators to realize that with additional authority comes responsibility.” As an illustration of his style, Senator Rosenberg took a charter schools bill to the floor of the Senate with only 12 of the 21 votes he needed to pass it—something that Speaker DeLeo would never do. In the course of the debate, Senator Rosenberg met with every senator individually to find out what each wanted in the bill. “We kept adding amendments until we got a majority,” said the president.
Senator Rosenberg’s critics said he would get more done if he provided more direction to the members. The criticisms of the two leaders were mirror images of each other. “Our leaders need to find a happy medium between leadership control and members’ freedom of action,” said a veteran House committee chair.
A Washington staffer described the speaker in her legislature as “a conductor of an orchestra,” whereas the Senate majority leader resembled “a piano player in a bar, hoping the customers sing along.” This distinction between different styles demanded by larger houses of representatives compared to smaller, more collegial senates was common in our 10 states.
Washington state leaders used a variety of approaches to ensure civility, consensus building and teamwork between the parties. During a period when the House was tied in the early 2000s, the House adopted a formal “no surprise” rule. It required transparency with the members regarding rules of procedure and that leaders be open about their plans. Members regarded the rule as so successful that they have continued it ever since, even without having the incentive of a tied house. It provides assurance to the minority party that they will be treated fairly.
Long-time Washington House Speaker Frank Chopp was well-regarded for his behind- the-scenes work, collaborative style and willingness to let others take the credit. The Washington Senate has a practice of ensuring that each minority party member got at least one bill passed as a way of promoting bipartisanship. The House majority leadership also made sure that the chamber passed a substantial number of minority party-sponsored bills.
We previously reported on Connecticut’s practice of never calling the previous question. Similarly, an Iowa Senate leader commented, “We respect the minority party’s ability to voice their concerns, especially about the budget. We don’t use the tool of calling the question. Or, when we do, we consult with the minority leader. We don’t use parliamentary surprises.”
In commenting on the qualities of effective leaders, an Iowa leader said, “You have to understand the process, the rules and have the experience not to react to every little thing.” Experience for legislative leaders is in short supply in Colorado and Maine, both of which have eight-year limits on service in each of the two legislative chambers. Leaders in those legislatures never have more than six years of experience and seldom serve as leader for more than one two-year term.
Paraphrasing Woodrow Wilson, a Virginia legislator said, “The General Assembly in committee is the General Assembly at work.” In a well-functioning committee system, committees give a fair hearing to all sides on proposed legislation, deliberate on the merits of each proposal with active participation by minority party members and screen legislation in their area of policy for the rest of the house. Committees are particularly effective when leaders give them the freedom to negotiate and act.
Several Minnesota legislators said that committees do most of the substantive work of the Legislature. Committee chairs are empowered to make key decisions, and they have important responsibility to set the tone of cooperation or partisanship on their committees. An Iowa committee chair said, “We have a lot of freedom and autonomy with our committees. I don’t have to ask for permission. Our role is to funnel the bills and make the leaders responsible for negotiating fewer bills… [and serve] as a conduit of information to the leadership.”
Many legislative leaders hold weekly meetings with committee chairs to strengthen communication and coordinate committee activities. A Virginia committee chair said of Sunday night meetings between committee chairs and leaders, “The communication from caucus leaders is important. They don’t often ask us for much, but when they do, you need to follow the caucus lead.” An Iowa leader reported that committee chairs have a lot of autonomy but that at the leaders’ weekly meetings with committee chairs, “We encourage the chairs to bring controversial bills to the caucus first, before the committee. We don’t want them to feel like leadership pulls all the strings.”
Some committee chairs reported that they made concerted efforts to overcome political polarization. A Washington chair said that he held weekly meetings with the ranking minority member and made sure that every member of the committee, Republican or Democrat, got a bill favorably reported out of committee. Other chairs in states with split legislative control talked about the importance of building personal relationships with counterpart chairs of the opposite party in the other house.
The perception of a well-functioning committee system and the theme of empowered committee chairs was echoed in most of our case-study states. However, legislators in the Massachusetts House and Wisconsin Assembly said that the leaders maintain relatively tight control over committee actions. Wisconsin Democrats feel as if the majority runs roughshod over them in committee. And in Virginia, for all the confidence legislators expressed in their committee system, one member said, “When a bill has notoriety, the committees don’t matter as much,” meaning that high-stakes bills bear the imprint of the leaders, the majority caucuses and the governor more than the committees.
Legislatures that operate primarily with joint committees are a special case. As it happens, the only three such legislatures in the country are in our sample of 10 states: Connecticut, Maine and Massachusetts. In all three states, the joint committees had co-chairs from the two chambers, had more House members than senators by margins of three or four to one, held joint hearings, and reported on bills to both chambers with a combined majority vote. Many interviewees in Maine thought their state’s joint committees facilitated negotiation and bipartisan compromises and reduced the need for separate negotiation between the chambers. Maine’s joint committee system has worked under both unified and split party control within the Legislature. One conservative member, though, complained that the joint committee system reduces internal legislative checks and balances and makes it too easy to pass legislation.
Connecticut legislators were similarly satisfied with its joint committee system, in part because both chambers have been under the control of the same party for so long. Some legislators expressed skepticism as to whether the joint committee system would survive a future change in party control in one chamber. Even though they had a Democratic majority in both chambers, Massachusetts Senate leaders were frustrated with the joint committee system because they felt as if it was under the control of the House, whose members could always outvote them on committees. The Senate president attempted to change the General Court’s joint rules and split committees between the chambers at the outset of the 2015 session. The House did not go along with this proposal. As a result, joint rules were never adopted for the 2015-16 biennium, and the legislature continued to operate with the old rules that remain in effect until new ones are adopted.
Although most of the rest of their committees operate by chamber, both Colorado and Wisconsin have very powerful joint budget committees. The Colorado House and Senate both elect three members to the Joint Budget Committee. The chairmanship rotates annually between the two chambers. We have already mentioned that the JBC operates under a rule that they do not recommend a budget bill unless there is unanimous support among its six members. This means that minority party members on the committee have considerable influence over the budget, and the committee must develop a “long bill” that will pass both chambers and obtain the governor’s approval. The JBC never adjourns, as it has power over funding decisions in case of emergencies between legislative sessions, and service on the committee is a full-time commitment. JBC members of both parties view themselves as a team and function as a built-in consensus building committee for the legislature.
Wisconsin’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) is equally as powerful as Colorado’s JBC, although in recent years it has experienced more partisan conflict. Legislative leaders in each chamber handpick eight members to serve on JFC from among members they expect to be leaders in the future. (All but one top leader in recent memory has previously served on JFC.) The committee meets for eight to 10 hours a day for two months to develop the state budget, so the members get to know each other well. Historically the committee has operated in collegial fashion. Since the Republican takeover of the Legislature after the 2010 election, the Assembly Republican members of JFC have caucused together before each meeting, usually for many hours, to talk about the issues on the agenda and develop a position. They then vote together in the formal meeting, even if some of the members disagree with the position taken. This gives majority party Assembly members more power in the JFC and leaves the minority party out altogether. Democrats and Republicans alike say that the minority party has no impact on state budget outcomes.
Legislators often cited the importance for the policy making process of the ability of minority party members to have influence on committee decisions. This helps to build support for legislation and gives the minority party a sense of buy-in. In the American Legislator Survey, we asked a question about how much influence minority party members have on the respondent’s most valued committee’s decision making (Table 2). Note that two of the three states with joint committee systems are at the top of the list but that the third, Massachusetts, is below average. There are too few responses from the joint committee states to reach definitive conclusions about the effect of this variable on the influence of minority party members on committee decisions.
Table 2. Legislator Responses
“How much influence do minority party members have on [your most valued] committee’s decision?” (Scale of 1=None to 7=Considerable)
States N Average
Maine 65 5.2
Connecticut 36 4.3
Washington 35 4.1
50 States 1,620 3.6
Colorado 25 3.5
Massachusetts 32 3.4
Minnesota 52 3.3
Virginia 24 3.1
Iowa 42 3.0
Tennessee 34 3.0
Wisconsin 38 2.7
In a multiple regression analysis (Appendix III) of the effects of various institutional or individual characteristics of all 50 states on the perceived influence of minority party members in committee, the following independent variables were statistically significant.
- Party | 99.9 percent confidence level: Democrats perceive minority party members as more influential than do Republicans.
- Professionalism | 99.9 percent confidence level: Lawmakers from states with part-time legislators and relatively low resources for the legislature perceive minority party members as more influential than do those in more full-time, high-resource legislatures.
- Money Committees | 99 percent confidence level: Legislators whose primary committee assignment is not an appropriations, budget or tax committee perceive minority party members as more influential than do those who serve on money committees. This is contrary to the interview findings in the discussion of the collegiality of budget committees in Colorado and Wisconsin above, but consistent with a notion that money committees may enforce more party discipline than do substantive policy committees.<
- Majority Status | 99 percent confidence level: Legislators who are in the minority party perceive themselves as more influential in committee than do majority party members.
- Term Limits | 99 percent confidence level: Legislators in states with term limits view minority party members as more influential than do those in non-term-limited states. This suggests that legislatures with less experienced members may not place as much emphasis on party discipline in committees.
- Divided Government | 95 percent confidence level: Legislators in states with divided government view minority party members as more influential than do those in states with unified government.
The views of women legislators regarding the influence of minority party members in committee did not differ significantly from those of men.
Legislators in Massachusetts, Minnesota and Virginia talked about the importance of conference committees, especially if they are closed to the public, for final negotiations on bills. “Everything ends up going to conference,” said a Massachusetts senator. The conference committees do not meet in public, and their reports cannot be amended on the floor. Another veteran Bay State member said, “When you’re part of a conference committee, you can get things done.”
Conference committees were also particularly important in Minnesota, in part because they use a concurrent bill introduction system in which a bill is introduced in one chamber and a companion bill in the other. Committees and the chamber as a whole work on their own bills without waiting for the house of origin to act, and differences are negotiated in conference committees. Leaders in each chamber appoint the conference committee members and are under no obligation to appoint members who did not vote for the bill. As a result, Minnesota conference committees sometimes consist only of majority party members when the Legislature has unified control.
In Virginia, conference committees, usually consisting of the bill patron and two members each of the majority and minority parties, do not often meet in public. In fact, they may not meet at all. Differences are often worked out between key members in private, and the other members then sign on to the agreement.
In Wisconsin, conference committees have not been used to resolve differences between the two parties since the passage of Act 10, in large part because the state constitution requires open conference committees. Instead, agreements are worked out (or not) in leaders’ offices. “Conference committees are not useful because they are public,” said a sympathetic lobbyist. “It’s better to resolve things in private in the leaders’ offices.”
Personal Relationships, Culture and Traditions
Besides the formal rules and structures, legislators emphasized less formal and perhaps less tangible factors that encourage compromise and problem solving. These include interpersonal relationships, especially across parties, and cultures, attitudes and norms of behavior.
Colorado legislators in particular made a point about the importance of talking to members of the other party and building personal relationships. One majority party senator went to every member on the other side of the aisle and asked each to tell him about their interests, their hobbies and their families. Another member said, “You never know who could be your partner on a bill. There are new relationships and issues every year, so you can’t discount anyone.” A majority party leader and his minority counterpart made a pact early in their careers to cosponsor at least one bill each year. They continued this tradition when majority party control flipped. Their practice is facilitated in Colorado by a change in rules allowing “joint co-prime sponsors” of bills rather than requiring only single prime sponsors. Some credit this rule with encouraging more bipartisanship.
An Iowa legislator said, “I find the time to talk to colleagues from the other party at the large social receptions. I play racquetball and basketball with colleagues. It gives us the opportunity to talk about our families and interests.” While legislators in a number of states noted a decline in legislative socializing either due to ethics laws or general societal change, a Washington leader noted that members of the two parties still have dinner together and make connections with each other.
Another Iowa member emphasized the need to recognize that there are two sides to every issue and the importance of trying to understand the other side’s perspective. A Washington legislator talked about the importance of getting to know the range of issues that members hold on any issue, emphasizing that it’s not always far left vs. far right. “Once you understand how far you can maneuver to reach accommodation, the party labels fall off,” he said.
Several states have unusual seating arrangements on the floor of the chamber that members regard as promoting personal relationships and bipartisanship. In the Massachusetts and Connecticut senates, seating is in the round, so all members can see each other. A Connecticut senator described his chamber’s practice of seating members by district number, not by party, with the comment, “It may not change the way we vote, but it probably helps to increase civility and may help deflect partisanship a bit.” Tennessee legislators, who also have a form of “blended” seating on the floor, believe that this promotes relationships and collaboration between the parties. Seating in the Iowa General Assembly is chosen by seniority and causes members of the two parties to be interspersed. A knowledgeable Iowa observer said, “When members are sitting knee to knee on the floor with nowhere to hide, it makes a difference. You have to sit eye to eye and talk to each other, even after disagreements. It humanizes the process.”
Sharing common spaces and traveling together were also mentioned as ways of building relationships across parties. Most members of the Iowa legislature do not have their own offices, so they have to work at their desks on the floor alongside members of the other party when not in session. Many states take committees on tours to state facilities outside the capital city, and this, too, promotes personal relationships. In Colorado, interest groups sponsor trips around the state. One participant in a bipartisan group of 10 freshman members on such a trip reported that they got to know each other and their districts and leaned on the relationships they developed in the next legislative session.
Colorado has a growing number of informal, issue-oriented caucuses such as sportsmen, animal protection, or families and children. All are bipartisan and help to build relationships. The two top party leaders in the Massachusetts Senate take pride in having frequent “joint caucuses,” which are in effect study sessions for the members of both parties on major legislation.
We have previously mentioned a number of norms of behavior such as Tennessee’s culture of respect for senior members, Connecticut and Iowa’s reluctance to shut off debate, and Washington’s practice of making sure that minority party bills pass.
We heard about other individual state attitudes or traditions like Connecticut’s sense of civility. For many decades, Virginians have taken pride in “the Virginia way,” which means rising above partisanship to do what is right for the state. Many worry that the Virginia way is slipping away as the willingness to reach across the aisle to solve problems is disappearing (one somewhat cynical staffer described it as “gone”). But it is still an important enough tradition in Richmond that members talk about it and believe that it influences their behavior.
When he became speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly in 2013 in the aftermath of the partisan blowup of Act 10 two years earlier, Robin Vos negotiated a memorandum of agreement with the minority regarding allocation of time on the floor. According to the terms of the agreement, the top leaders from both parties meet privately before every legislative session day to agree on time limits for debate. Members and leaders both say the agreement has worked well: The Assembly works on a tighter schedule, sessions end earlier, and members get to go home at a reasonable hour. This step reduced tensions with the minority and smoothed legislative operations—without changing the fact that the Republicans had an unassailable majority and didn’t need Democratic votes to get things done.
There was one attitude that pervaded every state capitol we visited. It was usually expressed as, “We are not D.C.” The specter of congressional gridlock is such that it spurs states to attempt to act differently from Congress. “We’re here to get things done,” said a Maine leader in specific comparison to Congress. An Iowa senator took pride in his chamber by saying, “The Senate has a desire to do things differently from D.C. In 2013 and 2014 there was lots of cooperation. In 2013 we passed a property tax reform, health reform—there were many grand bargains made. One success led to the next success. We all felt good about not being like D.C.”
Special Roles: Women, Nonpartisan Staff and Narrow Majorities
The proportion of women legislators in our 10 states ranged from highs of 41 percent in Colorado and 33 percent in Minnesota and Washington, to lows of 17 percent in Virginia and 18 percent in Tennessee. The other five states clustered within a few points of the national average of 24 percent.
When we asked about the roles of women legislators we got two different points of view—from legislators of both genders and parties. One is that gender makes a difference. Advocates of this perspective say that women listen better, are more deliberative and collaborative, and are better at developing relationships. “We don’t get as caught up in posturing as the men,” said a Massachusetts Democratic woman committee chair. A Wisconsin Republican committee chair says that she thinks women are more committed to process and more rational and have longer-term perspectives than men.
The opposing view is that gender doesn’t make a difference. “They’re no different from men,” said a Massachusetts leader. “Some are aggressive and tough and some are collaborative and cooperative,” he continued. “I don’t think it’s possible to generalize about women legislators,” said a Wisconsin female leader. A liberal Massachusetts committee chair commented, “There appears to be a sisterhood among women legislators, but I don’t view gender as a significant issue in legislative performance.” We will return to differences between male and female legislators in the analysis of responses to the American Legislator Survey below.
Legislators in several states mentioned that nonpartisan staff are important in constraining partisanship and mitigating the effects of polarization. A Tennessee partisan staffer said that nonpartisan staff keep the institution on track and contribute to a sense of trust around data, analysis and key decision points. Connecticut and Minnesota legislators also commented on the high regard in which nonpartisan staff are held. In the term-limited Colorado legislature, legislators say the nonpartisan staff provide continuity and help them understand the big picture and the history of issues.
In a recent book, “Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign,” political scientist Frances Lee argues that at the national level, the closeness of the two parties and shifting control of the White House and Congress are what drive partisan conflict, impede cooperation and lead to stalemate. The state legislators in our 10 state sample had just the opposite point of view: They say close majorities mean more cooperation and collaboration.
A Democratic leader in Colorado said that the state’s “purple” proclivities and the narrow margins in the House and Senate mean that members of her party have to be more moderate and centrist. In Washington, where control of the Senate has switched often over 30 years, a leader said, “It’s easier to reach agreement when the majorities are slim, because you can’t always control everyone in your own caucus and you might need the other party’s support.” Elaborating on this point, a Washington state staffer said that the competitiveness of suburban districts means that the Democratic speaker in a House with a 51-47 margin sometimes has to let his members vote against his caucus and therefore needs votes from the other party.
An Iowa staff member observed that the slimmer the majority, the more you have to play nice. A Washington staffer thought that shifting majorities have a moderating effect because “You’re going to be in the minority at some point, so how do you want to be treated when that happens?” In a Virginia Senate with a narrow Republican majority, a Democrat said that the minority has significant input on bills “because we only have to pick off two or three Republicans.”
Underlying all of these various factors that mitigate the effects of political polarization is the idea of trust. It was either explicit or implicit in the discussion of rules and their fair and consistent application; the relationships between leaders and governors; the internal work of committees; the coordination between committees and leaders; traditions like the “no surprise” rule or not arbitrarily shutting off debate; and the role of nonpartisan staff.
One more story that illustrates the importance of trust: An urban black legislator in Washington said that he asked to be put on the agriculture committee to learn about rural issues and work with members of the other party. This did not cost him anything in his district because the issues were not priorities for his constituents. But by working with colleagues in the other party on their bills, he felt as if he earned trust and the right to ask them for support on his bills.
Attitudes Toward Compromise and Coalition Building
In our interviews, legislators often told us that a willingness to compromise was key to getting things done, to making public policy. In the American Legislator Survey, we asked, “Do you think compromise is an essential part of the legislative process or is it selling out?” (Scale of 1=Essential to 7=Selling Out) On average legislators scored 2.4 on this scale, much closer to “essential” than to “selling out.” And legislators were much more favorable to compromise than the American people (Table 3). Because the questions were not exactly the same, extreme caution is necessary in interpreting the results from these three surveys, but the differences between the attitudes of the general public and those of legislators are so great as still to be noteworthy. Legislative life apparently teaches the value of compromise.
Table 3. Legislators’ Attitudes Toward Compromise Compared to the Public
Gallup Poll 2014: “Where would you rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 means it is more important for political leaders to compromise in order to get things done and 5 means it is more important to stick to their beliefs even if little gets done.”
Prolific Academic Survey (2015) of American citizens by John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Moore: “Do you agree or disagree with, ‘What people call compromise is really just selling out on one’s principles.’”
‡ NCSL American Legislator Survey 2014: “Do you think compromise is an essential part of the legislative process or is it selling out?” (Scale of 1=Essential to 7=Selling out)
The responses to this question In the American Legislator Survey from the 10 states in this study (Table 4) are for the most part as we would expect, with Massachusetts, Minnesota and Virginia the most favorable to compromise and two of the unified government states, Tennessee and Connecticut, the least. The only surprise is Wisconsin in the middle of the pack, perhaps reflecting the reality that compromise is still necessary within a divided majority party, even when it has an overwhelming margin of control.
Table 4. Legislator Responses
“Do you think compromise is an essential part of the legislative process or is it selling out?” (Scale of 1=Essential to 7=Selling out)
States N Average
Massachusetts 38 1.9
Minnesota 56 2.1
Virginia 33 2.1
Maine 68 2.2
Wisconsin 42 2.3
50 States 1,812 2.3
Colorado 29 2.3
Iowa 43 2.4
Washington 39 2.5
Connecticut 40 2.6
Tennessee 35 2.6
A multiple regression analysis of the compromise question shows that the following factors are statistically significant in explaining legislators’ attitudes toward compromise:
- Party | 99.9 percent confidence level: The average score for Democrats was 1.9 and for Republicans 2.9. While the Republicans’ average score is significantly less favorable toward compromise, it is still much closer to “Essential” than it is to “Selling Out” on the 7-point scale.
- Polarization | 99 percent confidence level: Legislators in less polarized states on the Shor-McCarty scale view compromise more favorably than do those in more polarized states.
- Professionalism| 95 percent confidence level: Lawmakers from states with more full-time, high-resource legislatures view compromise as more essential than do those in part-time legislatures with relatively low resources.
Factors such as Divided Government, Majority Party Status, Term Limits and service on a Money Committee were not statistically significant. In an initial bivariate analysis of the effect of Gender on compromise, women legislators appeared to be much more favorable to compromise than men, but after controlling for political party (60 percent of women legislators are Democrats), the relationship washed out. This result supports the views of some of our interviewees that women legislators do not behave significantly differently from men.
Another survey question asked how much time legislators spend on each of seven activities (Table 5). In addition to spotlighting legislators’ focus on constituents and committee work, this table shows that legislators allocate more time to building coalitions within party than across party. This is particularly true for majority party members. Not surprisingly, though, minority party members devote more time to building coalitions across parties than within their own. This relationship holds after controlling for party.
Table 5. 50-State Legislator Responses
“How much time do you spend on each of the following activities?” (Scale of 1=Hardly any to 5=A great deal)
Legislators’ Activities Score
Keeping in touch with constituents: 4.1
Committee work: 4.1
Helping constituents with problems: 4.0
Building coalitions within party: 3.5
Making sure district gets money/projects: 3.2
Building coalitions across parties: 3.1
We also asked legislators how much attention they think their party leader should give to a series of activities, using the same five-point scale (Table 6). Focusing on the Keeping the Caucus United and Building Coalitions Across Parties responses, the same dynamic between majority and minority parties as in the previous question holds true: Minority party members want their leaders to focus attention on working across party (3.9) significantly more than majority party members do (3.4).
Table 6. 50-State Legislator Responses
“Please indicate how much attention you think your legislative party leader should give to:” (Scale of 1=Hardly any to 5=A great deal)
Leaders’ Priorities Score
Floor management: 4.1
Supporting and defending the institution: 4.0
Assisting members with legislative problems: 3.9
Keeping the caucus united on floor votes: 3.8
Building legislative coalitions across parties: 3.6