Pressure for reelection acts as an obstacle for legislative compromise, ASU professor says

Mary Feeney, professor, School of Public Affairs, Arizona State University, shared governance

Mary Feeney, Lincoln Professor of Ethics in Public Affairs, School of Public Affairs, Arizona State University. ASU photo


Unlike countries with parliamentary systems, where governing with pluralities rather than majorities is the norm, the United States has only two major parties, meaning usually one or the other is in charge of one or both houses by reasonably comfortable majorities.

That changed after the 2020 election, with the Democrats only barely in control of Congress by about 10 votes in the House of Representatives and, by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote, just an official majority in the Senate, which is divided 50-50.

Mary Feeney, Lincoln Professor of Ethics in Public Affairs from Arizona State University's School of Public Affairs, talks about the ramifications of shared governance regarding issues facing the country in 2021. Feeney is the editor of the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory. She was selected by the National Academy of Public Administration for inclusion in its 2019 Class of Academy Fellows.

Question: The new Congress has an even split in the Senate, and Democrats are in control of the 435-member House only by a few seats. What might be some things people can expect to be different?

Answer: The last Congress was a movement toward extreme bipartisanship. The divide between the two parties was wider than it had been historically. In a normal universe, when you have the two parties more balanced, you’d see more compromise at the middle. You’d have more conservative Democrats switching votes on some issues or some liberal Republicans switch on an issue. …  The challenge today is that the divide is larger and there are fewer folks in the middle. Now there is less space to reach a compromise. If you had a 50-50 split in the Senate 20 years ago, there were more people in the center who were “flippable” and you would see more compromise to appeal to those in the center.

Q: What is likely to be much the same during the next two years? It seems that so far most of President Joe Biden’s nominees for the Cabinet are getting rather quick and uneventful approval.

A:  There’s just not a lot to contest about those nominations. They are not controversial people because they are experts in education, housing, or labor etc. It’s why we’re not seeing the confirmation as contentious. But remember, just because you’ve approved someone as a Cabinet head doesn’t mean you have given them a budget or effective legislation. 

Q: On several issues so far, Biden has certainly issued a flurry of executive orders rather than try to go through Congress.

A: The reason Biden can govern by executive order is that (former President Donald) Trump did (before him), and (former President Barack) Obama did before Trump. Biden is mostly reversing or ending Trump’s executive orders. But for anything to stick, he’ll have to go through Congress. Otherwise, we go back and forth (from administration to administration) and nothing gets permanently solved.

Q: Does this situation of shared governance, in a way, force bipartisanship on a group of people who haven’t practiced much of it in recent years?

A: Bipartisanship requires elected officials to represent the interests of their communities, not just their party or those who voted for them. Big things like a border wall or COVID relief affect people across the country, not just one’s constituents or one’s voters. Unfortunately, we have a political culture that prioritizes reelection over advancing the public good; we are going to continue to have split interests, Republicans for Republican interests and Democrats for Democratic interests. And those few swingable centrists’ votes, if they’re up for election in the next two years, their elections will likely weigh on them more than the good of the country.

Q: Here in Arizona, only a few votes in each house of the state Legislature separate the two major parties. Republicans have had many years of solid control. How much more power might Democrats be able to wield, even though they remain officially in the minority?

A: While an increase in Democratic legislators will inevitably alter negotiations across party lines, Arizona has long been Republican. Even with a Democrat in the governor’s office, the Legislature has been controlled by the Republicans. In many ways, a Democrat in Arizona is still quite conservative and similar to a centrist national Republican. The challenge to the Arizona Legislature is that much of the Arizona GOP has moved closer to Trump, while the people themselves are articulating more liberal preferences – last year we passed referendums legalizing marijuana and a tax on the wealthy (for K–12 education). A year before that we voted to raise the minimum wage. Arizonans want a serious investment in education. Now, no one, regardless of party, wants to pay more taxes, but everyone wants their kids to go to good schools. And big businesses don’t want to move here if the schools are low performing. Education is not partisan. More money for education is good for their kids and good for the economy. So today we don’t necessarily have a situation of more Democrats driving the Legislature to the left, it’s that the whole group of voters is shifting. That’s what the state Legislature needs to be responding to – voters and community needs.

Q: So, how would you sum it all up?

A: In an ideal world our elected officials would seek to pass policies and budgets that are in the best interests of the country and their constituency or district. Social and economic challenges require complex policy solutions that require taking a long view, certainly a longer view than the election cycle. Unfortunately, our two-party system, combined with current campaign finance practice, has pushed elected officials to focus on short term goals of appealing to voters — fundraising and reelection, thus limiting the probability of bipartisan compromise.

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