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Non-Party Government: Bipartisan Lawmaking and Party Power in Congress

  • James M. Curry and Frances E. Lee

Majority leaders of the contemporary Congress preside over parties that are more cohesive than at any point in the modern era, and power has been centralized in party leadership offices. Do today’s majority parties succeed in enacting their legislative agendas to a greater extent than the less-cohesive parties of earlier eras? To address this question, we examine votes on all laws enacted from 1973–2016, as well as on the subset of landmark laws identified by Mayhew. In addition, we analyze the efforts of congressional majority parties to pass their agendas from 1985 to 2016. We find that enacting coalitions in recent congresses are nearly as bipartisan as they were in the 1970s. Most laws, including landmark enactments, continue to garner substantial bipartisan support. Furthermore, majority parties have not gotten better at passing their legislative programs. Contemporary congressional majorities actually fail on their agenda items at somewhat higher rates than the less-cohesive majority parties of the 1980s and 1990s. When majority parties succeed on their agenda priorities, they usually do so with support from a majority of the minority party in at least one chamber and with the endorsement of one or more of the minority party’s top leaders.

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A list of permanent links to Supplementary Materials provided by the authors precedes the References section.

*Data replication sets are available in Harvard Dataverse at

The authors thank Eric Schickler, David Karol, Wendy Schiller, and Scott De Marchi, as well as the participants at the 2017 Congress & History Conference, the American Politics Workshop at the University of Maryland, and the American Institutions Group at University of Michigan for their helpful feedback and advice. They also thank Sara Browning, Katrina McNally, and Zachary Stickney for excellent research assistance, and the Hewlett Foundation’s Madison Initiative for their generous financial support.

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Perspectives on Politics
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