A common and compelling narrative about policy making in the U.S. Congress in the 21st century revolves around party polarization and gridlock. According to such a narrative, the vast ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans leaves insufficient common ground on which to forge the coalitions that are necessary to properly govern America's complex republic. Especially absent a sizable unified government, wherein the president's party also controls the House and a filibuster-proof Senate majority, the natural result is gridlock.
In this chapter, we argue that such a narrative, while useful, has a variety of limits, all of which point toward the need to focus not merely on party and ideology but also on the law-making effectiveness of individual policy entrepreneurs in Congress. First, it is important to recognize that not all policy making in Congress is driven by partisan politics. Notably, as we discuss in the following, interest group politics, client politics, and entrepreneurial politics are all common and important, often with the potential to cut across partisan divides. Second, the overarching story of polarization-induced stalemate misses the fact that policy gridlock varies substantially over time and across different issue areas, in ways that partisan polarization cannot adequately explain. Third, this variance in rates of gridlock is closely linked to the extent to which issues are dominated by the incidence of entrepreneurial politics at specific points in time. (As we define in the following, entrepreneurial politics involve issues for which there is concentrated opposition to policy change, yet widely distributed supporters for such change.) Highly effective lawmakers are needed to act as entrepreneurs in overcoming gridlock on such issues. And many of the same skills that they use to advance policy change in the presence of entrepreneurial politics are also valuable in overcoming the gridlock of partisan politics.
Throughout this chapter, we develop this argument through both qualitative case studies and large-N quantitative analyses. Taken together, the evidence we advance points toward a greater need for scholars and practitioners alike to focus not just on the ideological positions of members of Congress, but perhaps even more so on which lawmakers in Congress have the ability and inclination to “get things done.”
We begin with an illustrative example from one of the most pressing policy problems facing the United States in the early 21st century – soaring health care costs.