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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: May 2015

18 - Making Deals in Congress

from Lowering Barriers to Policy Making


There is one unavoidable fact about legislating in a democratic system. No single person, faction, or interest can get everything it wants. Legislating inevitably means compromising, except in the rare circumstances when consensus is so strong that one dominant view can prevail with ease.

Robert Kaiser 2013, p. 174

Compromise may be the “unavoidable fact” about legislating in a democratic system. Yet, scholars have few systematic answers to this question: How do legislators “get to yes”? To put the question in language more familiar to students of politics: How do politicians with diverse, often-conflicting interests and policy preferences reach agreements on public policy in a legislative body of co-equals? In this chapter, we offer a perspective on deal making in the contemporary Congress, highlighting the impact of political and partisan considerations on lawmakers' abilities to secure policy agreements.

Negotiation in Congress is never solely about policy: politics and policy are always intertwined. Congressional negotiations thus differ from those in the private sector, in which actors seek to maximize benefits and minimize costs and the substantive terms of an offer are paramount. Congressional deal making occurs in a political context that shapes the willingness of party leaders and their “rank and file” to negotiate at all or to accept even favorable offers. Lawmakers must justify votes and policy compromises to their constituencies, whereas party leaders must attend to key groups in the party coalition and to the party's public image. Given the political context of congressional negotiations, we evaluate the tools and institutional arrangements that make deals in Congress more likely – emphasizing that conflicting incentives and interests place a premium on negotiating out of the public eye. We conclude with a broader assessment of the prospects for negotiation in a party-polarized Congress.


Negotiation theorists typically distinguish between distributive and integrative solutions to public problems (see Chapters 4 and 5). Distributive solutions involve zero-sum bargaining over extant benefits.

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