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Understanding the Rise in Political Gridlock

Politics & Social Justice



Political Science Professors Scott Frisch and Sean Kelly, along with Mathematics Associate Professor Geoff Buhl, analyze Congressional voting data to identify patterns of ideological extremity over time. Specifically, their research evaluates the role that this polarization plays in governmental fiscal deadlock. Dr. Frisch, Dr. Kelly and Dr. Buhl are extending this research to identify how interest groups become polarized, which reinforces partisanship and ideological extremity in Congress.

Appropriations committees are typically considered the most bipartisan; their power and prestige emanate from passing bills that fund much of the federal government. This research explores the rise of partisanship in the appropriations process between the 91st and the 111th Congress (1969-2011), illustrating the infiltration of ideological extremity into the appropriations process.

In addition to sophisticated mathematical models, nearly 100 interviews were conducted with current and former appropriators, committee clerks, Congressional staff, and lobbyists. Funded by university grants, these findings offer rare insight into why politics has become increasingly partisan and policies that might ameliorate this trend.

Based on their research, the professors conclude that the textbook appropriations process is ineffectual. Ideological extremity and partisanship are largely to blame for the inability of Congress to exercise its power of the purse. Congressional gridlock over appropriations matters cedes power to the executive branch to make funding decisions in a manner inconsistent with Constitutional design.