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The Limits of Party: Congress and Lawmaking in a Polarized Era, James M. Curry and Frances E. Lee

Reviewed by Laurel Harbridge-Yong

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Most accounts of contemporary congressional politics focus on partisan fighting and the breakdown of regular order. The resulting picture for those who want to see deliberation and consensus building, or for those who worry about the majority steamrolling policy over the minority, is quite dim. James M. Curry and Frances E. Lee’s masterful new book offers a more optimistic perspective. In The Limits of Party, they suggest that when it comes to lawmaking, bipartisanship remains common and has changed little over the past 30 years. Moreover, despite exhibiting more cohesion on roll call votes, majority parties are no more likely to enact their core agenda items into law, and the prospects for bipartisanship are similar under regular order and under violations of regular order. Although the process has changed, the outcome has not.

Curry and Lee’s evidence highlights the limits of prominent partisan and preference-based perspectives on legislating. The responsible parties perspective envisioned homogeneous parties enacting their agendas and facing public accountability for their actions. Although contemporary parties meet many of the underlying conditions in dominant partisan models (for example, conditional party government, cartel theory, strategic party government), Curry and Lee show that polarization and the centralization of power with party leaders has not appreciably changed majority-party capacity. Moreover, intraparty divisions continue to preclude legislative action. When legislative priorities do not receive a vote, analyses that focus on roll call votes alone can be misleading.

Curry and Lee’s findings also point to limitations in preference-based theories that focus on the power of pivotal actors to block legislative action. When majority parties succeed in enacting their agenda items, bipartisanship does not reflect policy changes to pick off a handful of moderate veto players from the opposing party. Rather, the majority-party leadership often works with the minority party leadership to craft broad bipartisan support.

Although Curry and Lee highlight the limitations of existing theories of congressional lawmaking, they do not offer an alternative theory. Thus, there is a limit to what this book can provide in terms of a broader way of conceptualizing or hypothesizing about Congress. A second limitation of the book is how to integrate the arguments and findings with the past work of the authors. For instance, Frances Lee’s Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign emphasizes how competition for majority control increases incentives for messaging bills and decreases incentives to work with the opposing party on legislative deals. Similarly, James Curry’s Legislating in the Dark: Information and Power in the House of Representatives highlights how leadership-led policymaking results in a greater likelihood of party unity votes. The authors devote relatively little attention to reconciling their past work, which highlighted the increasingly partisan nature of policymaking, with their current argument about the continued prominence of bipartisanship in lawmaking. Although one difference is the focus on lawmaking versus voting, it could be beneficial to flush out the potential tensions with their past work.

Beyond offering a more optimistic view about the continuity of bipartisanship and a new perspective on the limits of parties to act as cohesive blocks, Curry and Lee provide a number of new data sources on important laws, majority-party priorities, legislative processes, and legislators’ responses to lawmaking. These publicly available data sets have the potential to encourage other scholars to look beyond roll call voting when analyzing Congress. The nature of these new data—large N for regression analyses but small enough N that the authors know their observations and can integrate the bill histories into the story—make the book rigorous and engaging. The thoughtful integration of interviews with members and staffers provides an additional vantage point into the policymaking process.

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ROBERT Y. SHAPIRO

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