It can seem like the US congress is a ship that rocks back and forth between the two sides (Democrats and Republicans), swaying more violently after each power change.

When one side legislates in a single party fashion (a la Affordable Care Act), the other side would be that much more motivated to reverse course since they did not have a say in the original legislation (a la Repeal and Replace).

Why does this [seemingly unsustainable] continue when the two parties could instead compromise to create something with lasting power and less resentment?

  • "the other party is likely to ... undo it when the power changes" It's not so likely and the power may change only until much later. It's definitely worth it if you can do it. Also, solely catering to your voters increases your chances next time. Now, single-party solution may not always be feasible, especially not in the US with all their checks and balances.
    – Trilarion
    Sep 29 '17 at 11:23
  • Historical perspective, It has been worse and better in the past, this is not new and just part of human nature. Would it really be better if everyone agreed? Only way to do that is by force and that has been tried and never works. I will submit that conflict is a requirement of being human. In other words, it will turn out all right. Sep 29 '17 at 11:59
  • Your question has some backwards assumptions. The ACA was not a single party process. The Repeal and Replace was.
    – user1530
    Sep 29 '17 at 22:31
  • @blip ACA got 0 Republican votes in both the house and Senate, so what do you mean?
    – Gpolitics
    Sep 29 '17 at 22:54
  • @Gpolitics the process of making a bill. The ACA was an open process (open committees). The repeal was completely closed (no democrats were allowed).
    – user1530
    Sep 29 '17 at 23:19

Why does this [seemingly unsustainable] continue when the two parties could instead compromise to create something with lasting power and less resentment?

TL;DR: The biggest problem is that the partisans actually have different ideas about the direction in which to go.

Taking healthcare as an example. Conservative Republicans want to shift healthcare spending such that individuals have more of a role and insurance companies and the government have less of a role. Liberal Democrats want to shift healthcare spending such that government has more of a role. Conservatives want lower taxes. Liberals want more taxes for more spending.

There are insufficient moderates in the two parties (plus independent Angus King of Maine) to form a governing majority in the Senate (sixty votes). So any bill requires either conservative Republicans or liberal Democrats. And to get them on board, the moderates have to agree to either increase the role of government or decrease it.

There are other issues than just the role of government. Pro-life Republicans want to ensure that no federal dollars go to pay for abortions nor even contribute to facilities that support abortions. Democrats want to ensure that all women's health facilities are fully funded, including those that support abortions. Republicans don't want to increase the overall funding towards such places at all. Democrats don't want to advantage facilities that do not perform abortions over those that do. There is no compromise between those positions.

Pew Research quoted Keith Poole of the University of Georgia as saying:

“With almost no true moderates left in the House of Representatives, and just a handful remaining in the Senate, bipartisan agreements to fix the budgetary problems of the country are now almost impossible to reach. [And] given that trends in polarization have continued unabated for decades and appear to be related to underlying structural economic and social factors…it is unlikely that this deadlock will be broken anytime soon.”

Now, some have blamed this on gerrymandering, partisan primaries, etc. But the truth is that voters have become more polarized as well. The Pew source shows people identifying as liberal increasing from 15% in 2000 to 20% in 2012. And conservatives increase from 32% to 34%. That's just in twelve years, well into the process.

Real Clear Science reported:

While most everyone has been saying it, science now supports it: Political partisanship is the worst it's been in over half a century, and it's increasing at an exponential rate.

Or their sister site, Real Clear Politics reported:

Finally, note that ticket splitting was essentially extinct in 2012.

In 2016, ticket splitting between the Senate and presidency was extinct. Every state that Donald Trump won voted in a Republican Senator. Every state that Hillary Clinton won voted in a Democratic Senator. There were some House seats (35) where the results split with the presidency, but no Senate seats.

Until voters start voting in a less partisan way, it is unlikely that politicians will. If they do, their voters will likely punish them. For example, of the twenty-five Democrats in the House who voted against healthcare reform in 2010, only three are left. The last time I noted that, a bunch of people posted that voting against Obamacare was not a moderate position. The problem is that it was. They were Democrats, agreeing with Republicans on an issue. If that's not moderate, then what is?

A large part of the problem is that too many people see compromise as those nasty people on the other side voting with them for what is a partisan goal. The truth is that compromise means that you have to give up something that you want in order to get someone else to give up something that they want. But neither side is willing to accept such compromises.

Conservatives think that when they try to compromise with liberals, that the liberals just keep taking and taking. Liberals think the same about conservatives. For example, on healthcare reform, the individual mandate was a Republican suggestion in the 1990s. Liberals feel that conservatives pulled the rug out from under them. Conservatives are essentially rejecting their own compromise suggestion.

Of course, there are very few supporters of the individual mandate from 1994 still in Congress in 2017. There have been three wave elections since then. The Republicans in Congress now are entirely different people than those in 1994. The terms of the debate shifted. It's also worth noting that while the individual mandate was suggested by Republicans, it was never really a conservative proposal. It was what the moderate Republicans were suggesting as a compromise.

Know what a moderate Republican was called in 2009? A conservative Democrat. Most moderates registered as Republicans lost in 2006 and 2008, some replaced by Blue Dog Democrats. Then the Blue Dogs lost in 2010 and 2014, some being replaced by moderate Republicans again, although not necessarily in the same districts. Blue Dogs tend to run in Republican-leaning districts. Moderate Republicans tend to run in Democrat-leaning districts.

  • I gave an upvote, but I feel there is one step missing in the argument to actually answer the question: You argue that compromise solutions are increasingly difficult or even impossible to reach, but the question is why the stronger faction still turns their position into law (if possible) even though that risks undoing. I suppose the idea is “because compromise solutions aren’t possible, so the only alternative would be to sit idle”, but perhaps you could make it explicit.
    – chirlu
    Sep 29 '17 at 17:17
  • @chirlu They were voted in to office for their purported policy positions. It would be a mistake to not try to advance their agenda if they have a chance to, because their constituents would punish them in the next election. It's important to keep in mind that each member of Congress serves a different constituency. Sep 29 '17 at 20:27

Depending on the policies involved many programs may actually be quite hard to reverse.

For example, in the post WWII period, income tax rates have been trending downwards quite consistently. Politically speaking, it is easier to lower taxes than to raise them. Even policies posed as "tax breaks" with built in expiration dates tend to have their proponents push for extensions and attack the possibility of their expiration as a "tax hike" (for a recent example, much of the Bush tax cuts are still in effect even though they were originally proposed because of a budge surplus during the Clinton years). Though in this case, they were helped along by the great recession, which affected fiscal and monetary policy very heavily.

Social welfare programs also tend to be quite popular once implemented and would be very difficult to remove. In the specific case of the ACA, "repeal and replace" is further hampered by the fact that Republican bills are primarily concerned with freeing up money for tax cuts without accounting for coverage, so all the CBO reports end up projecting millions of uninsured. The ACA is also basically a right wing solution to health coverage since it relies on strengthening private insurance companies and mandating the purchase of coverage. It's not really possible for the Republicans to replace it with something more right wing that actually improves health outcomes. Then again, if the ACA had involved more left wing policies such as a public option or single payer, moving rightwards towards public health exchanges and mandated coverage purchase might be even harder than whatever the Republicans are doing now since the private insurance infrastructure needed might no longer exist.

Basically, on the whole politicians either expect that their policies will stand the test of time and be popularly received (which is true enough a lot of the time) or that with enough time it will just be accepted as normal. It's not like politicians plan on losing power, aiming for policies that will last past their (unforeseen) loss of power rather than policies that they actually want seems really counterproductive.

  • I think legacy is a serious consideration for many politicians, and presidents at least see their end coming in advance.
    – user9389
    Sep 29 '17 at 16:10

Note that, for the most part, parties don't insist on single party solutions. Contrary to your question, the ACA was very much a bi-partisan process with open committees and plenty of input from all parties. It may not have received widespread acceptance from all parties, but the process didn't exclude one party--which is very different than the repeal and replace efforts, which have explicitly excluded democrats completely from the process.

But that doesn't mean the parties aren't working together. Most recently, there were democrats and republicans working together to find a way to strengthen the single payer market. Alas, that got shut down by the Republican party. See a trend? Well, at the moment, republicans are in power and also quite partisan. This hasn't always been the case. This Brookings Institute interactive chart shows the partisanship of both parties over time.

Some snippets to show historical changes:

enter image description here

There's always been an ebb and flow in terms of hyper partisanship in congress. During times of partisanship, policy will tend to be created in partisan ways more so than in times of broader ideological overlap.

That said, we're currently at a rather high level of partisanship in politics today. Why is that? There's lots of theories. One is simply demographics. As the US becomes increasingly diverse, younger, and urban, the political divide becomes greater.

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