The United States Congress is not the hive of activity it should be. In 2011-2012, the House of Representatives passed a measly 561 bills.
The 60-year average is 1,176 bills, but it’s been falling steadily for years. In 1949, the 81st Congress passed 2,482 bills – more than four times the number US lawmakers are currently managing.
But what’s behind this lack of industry? It’s hard to pin it on any one thing, but according to a recent paper from Penn State University, an unprecedented lack of cooperation between the two forces in US politics (the Republicans and the Democrats) could be part of the problem.
“We can’t say for sure that the decline in cooperation is the sole reason that there are fewer bills introduced or passed by Congress, but we do know the two are statistically correlated,” said Clio Andris, lead author and assistant professor of Geographical Information Science. “Both have been dropping steadily over the past 60 years.”
By analysing the way individual representatives voted on bills – ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ – Andris and her team were able to see how many times Republicans and Democrats voted together.
If you want to see how any particular person has been voting, you can see the same data she used here.
Based on this, Andris drew links between the representatives – either ‘same-party’ pairs where two members of the same party voted the same way, or ‘cross-party’ pairs where a Republican and a Democrat voted together.
Put it all together and what you get is a network for each two-year Congress. Individual representatives are the nodes on the network – blue for Democrat, red for Republican. The bigger the node, the more connections it has, and a brighter white line shows that the pair agreed on more votes.
The end result is both visually attractive and more than a bit damning.
What starts off as a web of connections between representatives of the two parties in 1949 becomes two very separate red and blue masses, as instances of cooperation between Republicans and Democrats falls.
Over the whole 60-year period, cooperation has fallen at a rate of about 5 per cent a year.
In the late 60s and 70s, there were more than 10,000 occasions per Congress where voting crossed party lines. By the time you get to the 2000s though, there were only 1,500 of these cross-party votes in 10 years.
“What we’re seeing now is that, more and more, party platforms are the determining factor for how the majority of representatives are voting,” said Andris.
Credit: Mauro Martino
The rise of the super-cooperator
Cross-party collaboration is pretty rare nowadays, that much is clear, but whether that’s causing the lack of innovation by lawmakers or merely a symptom is impossible to tell from this work.
What we can see though is the emergence a new breed of Congressman – the super-cooperator.
“If you look at past data, it was uncharacteristic that one representative would be involved in even one per cent of the total cross-party voting, because people were more likely to vote across party lines,” Andris said.
“Today, several people account for upwards of 50 per cent of the total cross-party votes.”
Andris defines the super-cooperator as someone involved in at least five per cent of all collaborations between the parties in a single Congress. Some people have blown so far past that though, they’re going to need a new category.
Over the course of the 108th Congress (2003-2004), for instance, Representative Ralph Hall (Democrat, Texas 4th District) was involved in 48 per cent of all cross-party pairs. A year later, Representative Dan Boren (Democrat, Oklahoma 2nd District) was involved in 42 per cent. And in the 110th Congress (2007-2008), seven out of 444 members were together responsible for 98.3 per cent of all cooperations.
When there are so few people cooperating, doing so is a good way to make a name for yourself. Or, as the paper itself concludes: “these super-cooperators may earn powerful reputations through single-handedly foraging the dwindling ties across divisive parties.”
For some, Congress’s inability to work with itself isn’t such a bad thing – it’s an opportunity.