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May 28

The Death of Deliberation: Partisanship and Polarization in the United States Senate

A common observation of the Senate today is that it is paralyzed by gridlock, composed of ideologically polarized members, and divided by more cohesive political parties. However, the argument that the Senate – and by extension, the Congress – are undermined by rampant obstruction overlooks the fact that the contemporary Senate is still capable of overcoming the differences among its members without descending into an endless debate of ideological partisanship and irreconcilable gridlock. 

 While current treatments of the Senate often seek to explain why gridlock happens, author James Wallner addresses the important question of why gridlock does not happen. His answer is quite simple: The Senate changes the manner in which it makes decisions on a case-by-case basis in order to limit conflict between its members. However, the Senate’s current ability to produce important legislation may undermine the institution’s deliberative function. His proposition is that while today’s Senate may indeed be broken, it is not broken in the sense typically acknowledged. Put simply, deliberation has succumbed to the Senate’s bipartisan determination to avoid gridlock and pass important legislation.

James I. Wallner is the Executive Director of the Senate Steering Committee. Prior to this, he served as Legislative Director to two U.S. Senators. He is also Adjunct Professor in the Department of Politics and the Congressional and Presidential Studies Program at the Catholic University of America.

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James I. Wallner
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