A University of Texas at Austin government professor argues in his new book that rising polarization in the U.S. Senate has been caused almost entirely by a particular breed of Republican lawmakers known as the "Gingrich senators."
In his new book "The Gingrich Senators: The Roots of Partisan Warfare in Congress," Sean Theriault, associate professor of political science and Distinguished Teaching Professor, details how this hyperpartisan group is likely to obstruct legislation on important issues such as gun control, health care reform, Planned Parenthood funding and payroll tax cuts.
Theriault suggests the Senate has become as polarized as the House of Representatives because of the effect of the Gingrich senators, which he defines as a group of Republicans who joined the House after 1978 when former Speaker Newt Gingrich was elected to the House and then moved to the Senate.
"Democrats have a harder time striking a deal with the Gingrich senators than they do in striking a deal with the other Republican senators," Theriault says. "Compromise is more difficult in the Senate because of the increasing number and increasing conservatism of the Gingrich senators."
According to the findings, these senators are 56 percent more conservative than non-House Republicans who first entered the Senate prior to Gingrich's House career. They are more likely to support filibusters than their fellow Republicans. And they account for almost all of the Senate's polarization since the early 1980s. These conclusions are based on an extensive analysis of roll-call votes in the Senate. Theriault also analyzed co-sponsorship patterns, amending activity, appearances on political talk shows, campaign fundraising and even participation in the Senate's Secret Santa gift exchange.
Theriault says this group, which includes 40 total senators and 22 currently serving senators, essentially imported the hardball tactics they learned in the House during the "Republican Revolution" led by Gingrich, who served as speaker from 1995 to 1999. Phil Gramm, Rick Santorum, Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn are examples of the group.
Theriault says his findings provide important insight into why the modern Senate closely resembles the U.S. House, where partisanship has been more prominent since the breakdown of the conservative coalition in the 1960s.
"The Senate of the mid-20th century, which was venerated by journalists, historians and senators alike, is but today a distant memory," Theriault says. "Electioneering on the Senate floor, playing games with the legislative process and questioning your fellow senators' motives have become commonplace."
As the Gingrich senators become more numerous and more powerful in the Republican caucus, the polarization will continue, he says.
"The future of the U.S. Senate looks bleak unless the people start electing compromisers instead of partisan warriors," Theriault says. "As the Gingrich senators gain seniority, and as more tea party senators get elected, the difficult job of forging bipartisan compromises will get exceedingly difficult."
The University of Texas at Austin issues news releases as a service to inform the media and public about faculty research.