Nearly 20 years ago, Stanford Professor Keith Krehbiel wrote a book showing that political parties are less important in legislative-executive politics than previously thought — challenging previous assumptions of American politics and influencing the work of many up-and-coming scholars. USC Price School of Public Policy Provost Professor Jeffery Jenkins was completing graduate school when Krehbiel released Pivotal Politics: A Theory of U.S. Lawmaking in 1998.
For his first symposium as director of the USC Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Political Institutions & Political Economy (PIPE) Collaborative, Jenkins brought together scholars nationwide who were impacted by the groundbreaking book for a discussion at USC on Nov. 7 on what Pivotal Politicsmeant when it was written, what it means today and how it will matter going forward.
“It really kind of jump-started a lot of important work in American politics and the American presidency,” Jenkins said of Pivotal Politics, on which he has co-authored two papers. “I think it’s also had considerable influence outside of American politics. This conference is a testimony to the book. It’s also a conference built around thinking about what Pivotal Politics can tell us in the Trump era and beyond.”
Krehbiel, who attended the symposium, argued in the book that a divided government actually has little effect on legislative productivity. Gridlock occurred even when the same party controls both legislative and executive branches. He asserted that gridlock is overcome when bipartisan, supermajority-sized coalitions are formed to reach the pivotal vote that overrides a possible presidential veto or puts a halt to a filibuster.
Expanding political scholarship
USC Price Assistant Professor Pamela McCann served as a discussant in the first session, noting that she read Pivotal Politics four times during graduate school.
“There’s this shortage of good, basic theories of lawmaking, and I really like simple,” McCann said. “In a complicated world, it helps me at least structure the way I think about things.”
McCann commented on a paper presented by Molly Reynolds of the Brookings Institute, titled “What if you Could Pick the Pivot? Budget Reconciliation and Pivotal Politics in the Contemporary Congress.”
“What Molly allows us to think about as a next step beyond Pivotal Politics is party dynamics, agenda setting and priorities of parties,” McCann said. “The work helps us start to think really carefully about procedures not only leading to policy, but as revealing dynamics about the legislative process and about parties and preferences that allow us to move forward as a new stream of work.”
On Princeton University Professor Nolan McCarty’s paper on “Pivotal Politics, Polarization, and Policy Uncertainty,” McCann added, “It hints at policy predictability, policy stability and policy gridlock versus policy change, policy volatility and policy responsiveness.”
USC Dornsife Associate Professor Christian Grose served as discussant for the two papers presented in the second session, Andrew Clarke from Lafayette College on “Causal Interference from Pivotal Politics Theories” and Nathan Monroe from the University of California-Merced on “What is Pivotal Politics (and What Else Can It Be?).”
In the final session, two of Krehbiel’s former students, Alan Wiseman of Vanderbilt University and Jonathan Wood from the University of Pittsburgh, gave their thoughts on the work before Krehbiel made final remarks.
“The quality, the diversity and the complementary aspect of the papers have been fantastic,” Krehbiel said. “I’m honored that you all showed up.”