Northwestern professor shares research on legislative gridlock

Nora Shelly, Reporter

A Northwestern professor discussed her research into the underlying causes of legislative gridlock Monday, arguing that lawmakers’ reluctance to compromise has paralyzed legislatures across the country.

Political science Prof. Laurel Harbridge told more than 20 attendees at Chambers Hall that lawmakers have trouble passing bipartisan bills because they fear retribution from voters and fellow politicians.

The lecture, which was part of a weekly colloquium series presented by the Institute of Policy Research, focused primarily on Harbridge’s research into why legislators vote “no” on legislation that have an element of compromise, ultimately resulting in bills needing more than just a majority support to get passed.

“These thresholds for passage and what it would take to move policy are perhaps getting a little harder,” Harbridge said.

To get to the bottom of this, Harbridge and her colleagues studied how state legislators would vote on a gas tax bill. Lawmakers completed surveys that tested how they voted on the bill by changing which party or person introduced the bill.

Harbridge said the research revealed that 28 percent of legislators would vote “no” on a compromise gas tax bill, making it difficult to govern without a supermajority.

She said this contributes to the current gridlock in both the U.S. Congress and state legislatures across the nation.

However, in the case of the Republican Party, Harbridge said, this was not the only reason that GOP legislators refused to compromise.  

“There is something beyond the fear of voter retribution that seems to be at work with the Republicans,” Harbridge told The Daily.

Harbridge said there isn’t much research on why Republicans are less likely to compromise, but that perhaps GOP lawmakers put more weight on their personal views than do members of the Democratic Party.

David Figlio, the director of the Institute of Policy Research, called Harbridge’s research “novel and innovative.”

“I was really impressed by how she is going beyond the evaluation of data and collecting her own data along this topic,” Figlio said. “It was definitely time well spent.”

Harbridge recently published a book titled “Is Bipartisanship Dead?” that focuses on her research into the decline of bipartisanship in the House of Representatives since the 1970s.

Josh Basseches, a Ph.D. student in the sociology department, said Harbridge’s research design appealed to him as someone who is also interested in studying state-level politics.

“It gave me a lot to think about,” he said. “(It is) definitely thought-provoking.”

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