What Does Doing a Good Job Mean?

This week we take a short break from our course on federalism to talk about legislating.

One of the key features of a republic is an elected legislature (representatives and senators in the U.S. Congress and in any state legislature).[1] Most people seem pretty clear on two of three key points in this context.

  • First, they are supposed to represent us and our interests.
  • Second, if we believe they are not doing a good job, we can use the next round of elections to replace them.
  • But, third, there seems to be some confusion over what “doing a good job” looks like. 

What does it take for a legislature to get good results? The only way laws get created and adopted is through individual acts of collaboration or compromise among legislators. Sometimes, collaboration and compromise must happen within a single party; more often, it has to happen across parties.  Most laws that were adopted had at least some bilateral support. In fact, they almost have to – because it is rare when a party does not need at least a few votes from the other side to succeed.

So which kind of legislator gets the best results?  A new study shows bipartisanship in sponsoring bills helps in moving legislation. There’s a virtuous circle, too. Members of Congress who offer to co-sponsor across party lines are more likely to attract bipartisan co-sponsors to their own bills. That, in turn, makes it more likely their own bills will be passed.

Yet, too many American voters prefer to elect representatives and senators to fight and confront the other side.  This, of course, leads to gridlock and a whole lot of frustration.

We humbly propose that your representative or senators are not doing a good job if they spend most of their time fighting and grand-standing.  If so, you can change things in the upcoming primaries.

For more on our system of government, check out our growing glossary and short courses here.

Image: Amish barn-Raising photographed by Scott Miller. Could the Amish raise a barn if they were fighting over every detail?

[1] Nebraska has a unicameral legislature with senators only.

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