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Explaining Minnesota’s 2015 legislative gridlock

Steven Schier

Steven Schier

The 2015 Minnesota legislative session was one of deep and protracted conflict involving the House, Senate and governor. It was also a session that generated widespread complaints regarding its low productivity and its inability to address major state issues. Those issues included a long term-solution to funding state roads and reform of state health care and education programs.

Was this the result of poor leadership or was this result “baked in the cake” by the composition of the Legislature and the presence of divided government?

Contemporary press accounts suggested that leadership was very much to blame. Democratic Gov. Dayton’s feuds with Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook) and the governor’s inability to negotiate efficiently with Bakk and House Speaker Kurt Daudt (R-Crown) as the session ended did produce both a limited legislative output and a very protracted sets of discussions.

Recent political science research, however, suggests that the situation in which the three leaders found themselves strongly contributed to the difficulties of the legislative session.

In a recent issue of American Politics Research, political scientist William D. Hicks analyzed the “efficiency of lawmaking” of American state legislatures from 1991 to 2009. Hicks defines “legislative efficiency” as the “raw count of enactments in a given year and legislature.” The larger the number of enactments, the more efficient the legislature in passing laws.

Hicks finds that the smaller the margin in legislative seats separating the majority and minority parties in the state legislature, the lower the efficiency of lawmaking. This is the result of several factors. First, as the margin narrows, “the minority party has greater procedural opportunities to obstruct the processing of legislation.” Further, “as the parties become more polarized, the minority party’s incentive to obstruct expands.” Additionally, “governors, through their institutional powers and prerogatives, provide legislative parties a powerful ally or opponent in processing legislation.”

All this helps explain the low efficiency of the 2015 Minnesota Legislature. The partisan margin in the House was narrow with 72 Republicans and 62 Democrats. Further, the legislative parties in both chambers were highly polarized regarding ideology and policy, continuing a state trend noted in previous political science research. Third, Gov. Dayton’s flexing of his institutional power via veto threats helped to slow legislative momentum.

In examining the experience of 48 state legislatures over 19 years, Hicks discovers some broad general trends. “A small partisan seat margin … inhibits legislative efficiency during divided government if and only if polarization is relatively high.”

That was the precise set of conditions during the 2015 Minnesota state legislative session. The session featured much party-line voting and high levels of ideological difference between the parties. Government was divided between a Democratic governor and Senate and a GOP-majority House. The partisan margin the House was relatively narrow.

All of this, according to Hicks’ analysis and evidence, was very likely to produce low legislative efficiency, regardless of the behavior of the governor and legislative leaders. So a frustrating legislative session was indeed pretty much “baked in the cake.”

Another article in the latest issue of American Politics Research also sheds some light on the state’s 2015 legislative situation. Political scientists Tyler Hughes and Deven Carlson examined the relationship between divided government and “delay in the legislative process” in national government from 1949 to 2010.

Like Hicks, Hughes and Carlson found polarization between the legislative parties to be a strong contributor to legislative delay. They defined the strength of the president’s party as the number of that party’s legislators compared to the number of votes required to pass legislation. Given this definition, the president party’s strength “has no effect on delay at low levels of party polarization.” The effect, however, “becomes significant as party polarization reaches moderate levels.”

The authors conclude that “voting deficits for the president’s party are easier to overcome when the parties are ideologically similar; the president’s party has greater difficulty reaching compromise with the opposition as the parties begin to polarize.”

It’s a great problem for a chief executive when government is divided. With low numbers of fellow legislative partisans and high policy polarization between the parties, an increase in legislative delay is very likely. The outcome confronted Gov. Dayton in 2015 and has beset President Barack Obama since the rise of divided government after the 2010 elections.

What are the problems resulting from legislative delay? Hughes and Carlson note several. Delay constricts a legislature’s working agenda and “such constraints can render the institution unable to address pressing public problems. Moreover, contentious politics has been shown to draw the ire of the public.”

The two studies point unambiguously in a common direction: Partisan and ideological polarization combined with divided government impedes the ability of a legislature to work well. That’s the Minnesota legislature in 2015 and Congress since 2010.

The solution to this problem in our state lies with the voters. Divided government reduces what a legislature can accomplish. Since our parties are strongly polarized by policy and ideology, the effect is all that much greater. Putting one party in charge of state government on Election Day will cause the legislative wheels to turn more efficiently.

Dayton, Bakk and Daudt have limited prospects to improve the situation, given the hand they have been dealt. They can only lead when the Legislature is inclined to follow, and as presently constituted, that’s quite unlikely to result. None of this augurs well for the 2016 legislature session, either.

Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

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