Government Research Intern: Sean Carmichael

The purpose of this research was to better understand the causation of such divided and unproductive activity within Congress when it comes to raising the debt ceiling. Over the past several years and namely when the national debt crisis became a serious issue within the public sphere, debt ceiling deliberations have become some of the most polarizing and divided pieces of legislation recent Congresses have had to pass. Is the national debt crisis a symptom of growing polarization within Congress that has been brewing for decades, or are the current inhibitions of Congress when it comes to raising the debt ceiling a symptom of the growing national debt? I hypothesized that polarization has steadily been increasing around debt ceiling legislation, and did not believe there would be any drastic change in polarization in recent years due to the debt crisis.

All voting records from 1978 to present that involved legislation to increase the debt ceiling were gathered from the Congressional Research Service, Congress.gov, and THOMAS.gov, and analyzed to determine if how Congress acts legislatively has changed over time. Party difference scores were calculated finding the difference in the percentage of yes votes between the two parties. The higher the value, the bigger the difference between the two parties voting and the more polarized the vote was. Congressional hearings’ witness panel testimonies were analyzed to determine if how Congress conducted itself internally had become more polarizing. 111 hearings that involved raising the debt ceiling, adopting a balanced budget amendment, or reforming the federal budget process were gathered for analysis. Hearings in which the witness panel testimonies provided opposing opinions with no clear position or solution were coded as “differing” whereas hearings in which the testimonies had a united position or solution were coded as “positional.” All 111 hearings were broken down by year into these two categories and displayed on a stacked area graph. Congressional hearings pertaining to the national debt were gathered from the Policy Agendas Project database and analyzed using ProQuest’s congressional publication database.

The results were similar to my hypothesis. Polarization was shown to have existed within Congress for decades and had steadily gotten worse, while no drastic spikes in polarization were seen in how Congress operated towards the national debt within the last decade. Hearings also showed to have become more proportionately differing than in the past.

These results also provided more questions. If the debt crisis is a symptom of increasing polarization within the institution, it would indicate that a more polarizing Congress can have severe consequences for the nation. If this polarization occurs on such important pieces of legislation such as raising the debt limit and limiting the national debt, what other problems or crises could arise due to disagreement in our highest legislative institution? When will this trend of increasing polarization end, if it does? The consequences of even more disagreement within Congress are scary to think about. To further expand on this research in the future, I would like to incorporate a control group. Although the controlled legislation has not been decided yet, something like minimum wage legislation would be an interesting choice. If similar polarization levels are shown between the two areas of legislation, it would provide evidence to the idea that increasing polarization is not localized to just debt ceiling legislation but effects all legislation within the institution; similar to the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats, increasing polarization within Congress affects all legislation.