Study indicates a bickering, partisan Congress may actually enhance legislative effectiveness

As political bickering reached its heights during this presidential administration, researchers were prudently observing the extensive levels of partisanship displayed in the members of Congress and the long-term effects in the passing of legislative bills, spanning decades.

In a recent study, released in the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports, a team of researchers at Michigan State University and the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research found political polarization may actually aid in the pushing for effective legislation among members of U.S. Congress.

“We propose a general method for identifying cohesive groups in signed networks (networks with positive and negative edges), and apply it to political networks, which have become a common focus in complex network analysis,” researchers stated.

“Specifically, we examine signed networks of political collaboration and opposition to identify the members of polarized coalitions in the US Congress, then use these coalitions to examine the impact of polarization on effectiveness in passing bills.”

The study focused on coalitions in Congress spanning decades, from 1979 through 2015, probing the extent to which polarized coalitions affect the efficiency of legislative propositions. Unlike political parties, coalitions are generally partisan in nature but may also be bipartisan, especially during the co-sponsoring of legislative bills endorsed by members from both sides of the spectrum: Republicans and Democrats.

“Our models produce a globally optimal solution to the NP-hard problem of minimizing the total number of intra-group negative and inter-group positive edges,” the study says. “We tackle the intensive computations of dense signed networks by providing upper and lower bounds, then solving an optimization model which closes the gap between the two bounds and returns the optimal partitioning of vertices.”

According to the findings, researchers found that partisan polarization could be efficient enough to enhance legislative effectiveness among members of Congress. This was despite the fact fewer legislative bills are being passed each year, as the steady decline might not actually be attributed to polarization, like some have previously inferred.

“Partisanship may help Congress pass bills into law, but that doesn’t mean future Congresses with different views won’t overturn them,” said Samin Aref, co-author of the study. “So, partisan polarization may only have short-term benefits; still, the trends in our data suggest the current trend toward a divide along party lines is likely to continue.”

“Our substantive findings suggest that the dominance of an ideologically homogeneous coalition (i.e. partisan polarization) can be a protective factor that enhances legislative effectiveness.”

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