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Policy Tools, Compromise, & Quarrels in the U.S. Congress

Published by Aubrey Hicks on

by Pamela McCann and Daniel Magleby

Bedrosian Faculty Research Award: Policy Tools, Compromise, and Quarrels in the U.S. Congress, Awarded January 2015


Governmental public policies provide a framework for programs, services, and resource allocations to address societal problems.  The bicameral nature of the United States Congress provides a setting for conflict not just on whether to reform existing policy, but on what policy instruments to employ.  When Congress decides to address a problem, the policy tools at their disposal include more or less regulation, direct service provision versus subsidies to other entities, and delegations of authority, to name a few (O’Hare 1981; Salamon 2001)[1] The U.S. federal system of governance is built on the principle of checks and balances.  By dividing power between multiple entities, the U.S. Constitution allows political actors to regulate and limit one another’s actions as they craft and pass policies.  This division of power between two legislative chambers is thought to inhibit the creation and implementation of bad policies, but the sharing of power also compounds coordination challenges and may also inhibit the creation of good policy (Tsebelis 2002; Diermeier and Myer 1999; Krehbiel 1998).[2]  Given the difficulty of passing legislation in bicameral systems, policy choices represent both a bargain struck between legislators within a single chamber and as well as across both chambers.

In this project we undertake the task of characterizing the nature of the bargains chambers strike in order to pass important legislation and develop a theory to explain the conditions under which one chamber might gain the upper hand over the other, when we should see longer negotiation processes, and the sequencing of House and Senate policy offers.

Specifically, we address the following research questions:

  • How does the party in control of each chamber and the relationship with the president’s party influence the bicameral negotiation process?
  • How might simple majority voting in the House and the filibuster in the Senate modify the leverage of a chamber in such policy negotiations?
  • What are the conditions under which the House and Senate agree more extensively on their policy choices (we define this agreement as the policy consensus region), and
  • What are the conditions under which there is no consensus that can be reached?

To accomplish these goals, we are constructing a novel dataset of the shared language in Senate and House bill introductions, amendments, and final enactments using existing plagiarism software.  This process will allow us to compare initial introductions, amendments offered, and which chamber’s language and policy choices end up in the final enactment.

The questions addressed in this project are fundamental concerns about the degree to which Congress can nimbly address new policy concerns that arise, make incremental adjustments to policy areas that need refashioning, or even stretch its muscles to innovate and pursue better solutions to long-standing problems.  If the House can marshal enough of its members to agree to a change in the status quo, but the Senate cannot (or vice versa) is it because one chamber refused to compromise with the other or because no consensus yet exists over good ways to improve the policy problem?   Although pundits, scholars, and members of Congress decry recent congressional stalemates, bemoan the problems associated with increasing polarization between the parties inside and outside of the beltway, and argue that Congress is broken and needs to be fixed in order to address today’s problems, we have very little rigorous evidence underlying the process by which Congress negotiates to bicamerally pass bills and send them to the president versus fails to reach an agreement.   This research project uses innovative methods to measure and assess both congressional quarrels and compromise.

Products:  Dataset under construction

Working Paper:  “Taking Turns: Specialization and Comparative Advantage in

House-Senate Interactions, “ with Daniel B. Magleby

  • Presented at the American Political Science Association 2014
  • Presented at the Midwest Political Science Association 2015

This paper has won the CQ Press Award for the best paper on legislative studies presented at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association to be presented at the upcoming APSA 2015 meeting in San Francisco.


[1] Adler and Wilkerson note that both the electoral incentives of Congress and its organizational structure result in a problem-solving institution, which likely does not completely resolve issues but regularly attempts to address them (2013).

[2] Scholars define “good policies” using various criteria ranging from efficiency to effectiveness and implementability to equity, among others (e.g., Bardach 2012).

Bedrosian Center