Partisan Ends: The Utilization of Conference Committees in a Polarized Congress




Alexander, Brian

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This research addresses the question, Why has the utilization of conference committees in the U.S. Congress declined? In so doing, it seeks to expand on contemporary theories of Congress, which are premised on the idea of individual, rational actors whose self- interested behavior is tempered by strong parties and party preferences. Much of the research in partisan theory focuses on one chamber or the other, typically the House. Yet if partisan theory is valid in explaining Congress as an institution, we should see partisan effects – such as evidence partisan polarization – at the bicameral level and, in particular, in the institution of the conference committee. This dissertation argues the changing partisan landscape – the increase in strength of parties and growing distance between parties – has had an effect on House-Senate relations and, particularly, on the utilization of conference committees. In addition, while partisan theory is premised on ideological conflict, research also suggests that partisan teamsmanship and electoral advantage seeking strongly affect the collective behavior of fellow party members. Preferences, in this context, are not simply ideological; they are tied to power within Congress and winning elections. Strategic partisan behavior independent of ideological partisanship is, therefore, an additional factor contributing to a decline in the utilization of conference committees. By demonstrating effects of polarized party conflict on the utilization of conference committees, this research places the demise of the conference in the broader context of the decline of regular order and the rise of “unorthodox lawmaking”.



Political science, Public policy, Law, Bicameralism, Conference Committees, Congress, Parties, Partisanship, Polarization