The Genesis of Congressional Polarization and Gridlock

There is an increasing consensus among political scholars as well as communication scholars that our political system has become increasingly polarized and dysfunctional in recent decades.

Here is an example of a book title that illustrates the concept. In 2012 Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein wrote a book entitled-“Its Even Worse Than It Appears: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.” Mann and Ornstein argue that we have developed parliamentary style parties in an American political system that is not compatible with parliamentary style parties. What do they mean by parliamentary style parties? In a parliamentary system, political parties tend to be ideologically focused and tend to have very strong standards of internal discipline and unity. In a parliamentary system the majority party or the majority coalition. more often the latter, have full reins in the government. These countries have checks on legislative power such as the Constitutions and courts, but there are few barriers in place to prevent the majority party or coalition from carrying out its mandate.

In our system, however, passing laws is much more difficult. Much of the time we have a President of one party and legislators of another party controlling one or more of the wings of Congress. Moreover, when one party controls the House of Representatives and the other party controls the Senate, passing legislation can be quite arduous. Moreover, the United States Senate has a feature, that though never discussed in the Constitution, is regarded by minority parties as a powerful tool–the Senate Filibuster. In order to shut off debate on any particular law or bill, a total of at 60 or more votes must be assembled. In other words, if the minority party has at least 40 votes in the Senate, it can effectively keep legislation that it does not like from coming up for a vote. There are very few times in the history of the United States that one party has had a filibuster proof majority.

Traditionally, the number of items that were subject to the filibuster was rather limited by the fact that there was considerable overlap in the ideological preferences of the two parties. In other words, though there were ideological differences between the parties, there was considerably more diversity within the parties than there was between them. This was shown in the research that I had you read concerning the overlap between the most conservative Democrat and the most liberal Republican. In the 1980s in the House of Representatives nearly 350 legislators fell in this interval. Likewise in the Senate, there were ordinarily 40 or more Senators that fell into this area of overlap as measured by legislative votes. This means that creating and sustaining a filibuster was relatively difficult.

However, charts that you read for last week showed that very clearly there has been a steady disappearance of this middle ground. By 2013 we found that there were only 4 legislators in the House of Representatives and No overlap in Senators. If you look at trends and change, this is an absolutely astonishing development. With the disappearance of the middle ground, the political parties have become much more homogenous in an ideological sense and it has thus become easier to sustain filibusters in the Senate.

This raises the question. What could be driving this change–causing the middle to melt away so quickly? Whatever it is, it must be a powerful force or set of forces.

One obvious possibility is that the disappearance of the political middle in Congress merely reflects increasing polarization in the country as a whole. While it is true that longitudinal comparisons of survey responses show some significant polarization in the electorate, it has bee very modest compared to the rate and degree of polarization of our legislature. Moreover, there is a very large number of political independents that has been growing in recent years who decline to affiliate with either of the two main political parties (up to 30% of the electorate). This trend alone suggests that the polarization of the public as a whole has been somewhat limited.
Others have suggested that the change is brought about gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is the age old practice in United States history of State legislators attempting to draw up legislative districts that are “safe”. In other words, legislators draw up districts that make it very likely that the Democratic candidate or the Republican candidate is going to prevail in most elections. This contributes to polarization some would maintain because members of Congress often do not face significant competition from the opposing party in their legislative district, they become more concerned with fending off primary challengers within their party. According to this line of reasoning, this drives legislators to increasingly lean right or increasingly lean left depending upon the make-up of their district. This probably happens to a certain degree, but if this were the main force driving the Congressional polarization, it would only apply to the House of Representatives and not to the Senate. In Senate races there are no boundaries drawn as the competition is spread out over each state as a whole: from election to election, the area from which a senator is elected remains the same. However, similar degrees of polarization have occurred in both the House and the Senate. Clearly, gerrymandering cannot be the primary factor driving political polarization.

So what other factor can best explain these changes? Here I simply offer you an explanation that I heard Congressman John Yarmuth of Kentucky’s 3rd legislative district (It covers most of Jefferson County). At a public forum here at U of L last year Representative Yarmuth noted that campaigns have become increasingly costly in recent decades. The average Representative has to raise nearly $2 million every two years to compete in the next election, where for Senators this figure is something over $10 million. This requires your members of the Senate and House of Representatives to spend more than 20 hours a week calling people for donations–each and every week of the year. He noted further noted that in most cases there is simply not enough well-heeled contributors in most Congressional districts or states to sustain this kind of fund raising. Hence, our legislators are required to those 100 or so zip codes in the United States where the real wealth lies. In other words, our Kentucky Senators have to call places like Hollywood, California or Silicon Valley or Wall Street or Washington D.C, to get the donations they need. Indeed, analysis of the contributions coming to the candidates in the current Senate campaign shows that the majority of funds have come from out of state sources.

But how would this drive polarization? Congressman Yarmuth said, “Well the folks in Silicon Valley have no intrinsic interest in matters related to Kentucky or any particular district in Kentucky. Moreover, it is well known that people who are true political partisans, those who are more conservative or more liberal than the average citizen are more likely to contribute as well. So what are the people on the other end of the phone interested in? They are interested in supporting someone who will be a consistent straight party line vote.”

In other words as campaigns have gotten more expensive, the dependence on the ideologically charged portions of the electorate for campaign donations creates a huge incentive for candidates to drift to the right or left further than they might otherwise. Without campaign contributions to fuel campaigns, especially television commercials, it is very difficult for any candidate to get a campaign off of the ground. There are other factors that some think has made this trend even more pronounced such as the unfettered spending created by outside political action committees as permitted by the Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling from 2010. If anything, however, that court decision came long after most of the polarization of Congress had already occurred. If Congressman Yarmuth is correct, it is going to be rather difficult to reverse this pattern of polarization and the gridlock that it has tended to produce. Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, however, conclude that figuring out how to moderate this system is one of the most critical tasks we must face if we want to restore health to the legislative branch of our government

A final Appeal: Please Vote Tuesday, May 20!

Candidate photoMy name is Greg Leichty.  I am running as a  Democratic Candidate in the United States Senate race.  I am on the ballot in the May 20 primary in Kentucky.

I am running because I decided to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.  We have a great deal of darkness in our political system at the moment.  Congress is broken.  It no longer functions as intended under our Constitution.    We no longer have a functioning legislature.  The key question in the campaign is who our legislators actually work for.  They spend 20 plus hours a week raising money for their next campaign.  They simply cannot feed the campaign finance monster and adequately serve their constituents simultaneously.

This is a systemic problem that will not be fixed until we begin electing people who are committed to changing this system to make our election system less costly, more transparent and more reflective of the will of the people.   I am a citizen candidate.  I pledge that I will not serve more than two terms in office if elected.  Moreover, I pledge that I will not raise money for reelection before the fifth year of my Senate term IF I elect to run for a second term.  I understand the magnitude of this problem.  I am dedicated heart, soul and mind to work on really fixing it.

This post provides a brief introduction of myself and my family.  It also includes links to Voter Guides that you can use to compare positions with the positions of other candidates in our own words.

The Leichty Family

leichty family




Left to Right:

Kari Doty, daughter
Kirk Doty, son in-Law
Kathleen Leichty, spouse
Greg Leichty, candidate
Jana Meyer, daughter
Jeff Meyer, son-in-law

Biographical Article By Lisa Schilling

Voter Guide Links.

Here are links to three voter Guides that should be helpful.  Compare the Senate candidates as well as other candidates on their unedited answers to questions .  Please forward to friends who may be interested.

Here is the Guide to the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth
Here is the guide put out by the Louisville Courier


Lexington Herald Leader Voter Guide

You can find my complete platform on at the following location

Please Vote on May 20.  Please encourage your friends and family to vote as well.  Our democratic system of governance is in peril.  Inform yourself and act to save it by voting!!

The Campaign I Would Run Against Mitch McConnell

Candidate photoIf I am the Democratic Party nominee against Mitch McConnell, this is the kind of campaign I will run.

Much of the conventional wisdom about what is needed to beat Mitch McConnell is misguided.  It emphasizes demonizing Mitch McConnell and taking few risks on issues.  It assumes that Mitch McConnell’s negatives are so high that the campaign is no more than a referendum on Mitch McConnell.  This entails running a cautious campaign where one only needs to be known as the alternative to Mitch McConnell to win.   This kind of thinking has driven Alison Lundergan Grimes’ campaign to date.  It is akin to playing prevent defense and trying to run out the clock.

There are several disadvantages of such an approach.  First, it allows the opponent to take the initiative; it allows the opponent to define you.   Only after Mitch McConnell made an issue the sexual harassment cases in Frankfort, did the Grimes campaign support another hearing of the Kentucky Legislative ethics committee.  Only after Mitch McConnell made an issue of the Keystone pipeline did the Grimes campaign decide to support it.

The other disadvantage of the Mitch-Referendum Strategy is that it does not build a mandate for a new Senator to execute once he or she takes office.  It does not educate the public about problems and possible solutions.  It timidly accepts the status quo as a given that cannot be challenged.

So what would Greg Leichty do differently?  Here is the answer.

It is time  to expand the issues on which the campaign is waged.   Two particular issues need to be emphasized: campaign finance reform and financial system reform.   With a bit of explanation, these issues resonate with a wide spectrum of the public.  People do not understand why very few people went to jail for the financial malpractices of 2008-2010.    It is time to explain clearly explain why this happened; time to explain what we need to do to fix it.  It is time to demonstrate how the failures of the financial system were directly relating to the corrupting influences of our current campaign finance system.

It is time to show how the combination of unfettered campaign cash and costly campaigns polarizes our political system and reduces our representatives to half-time legislators and half-time telemarketers begging for money.   Mitch McConnell has many owners.  He will come to wear a coat of his “owners” just like a NASCAR driver wears a coat of sponsors.   Mitch McConnell has taken money from Wall Street–and he has protected Wall Street by blocking laws that would rein them in.   Likewise, Mitch McConnell has taken more money from companies that do fracking than any other Senator.  He has protected gas companies from responsible oversight and regulation.  He has thus provided natural gas with an unfair competitive advantage when compared to the type of regulation that coal undergoes.  Mitch McConnell is the face of the real war on coal.

Broadening the issue spectrum covered in the campaign allows the Democratic candidate to move from defense to offense on these issues which have considerable appeal across the political spectrum.

It is time ask voters to focus on the future and not the past.  Our society needs to continue investing in basic science in order to enhance our economy and to protect our future health.  It is time to assertively point out the lost opportunities that will come from not doing so.   The same approach needs to be done to discussing our needs for rebuilding our infrastructure.

When it comes to the Affordable Care Act (ACA),  it is time to propose specific changes on how to improve the ACA.  If Mitch McConnell wants to continue his rip the ACA up root and branch rhetoric, then he will have to explain how this is going to affect people who have preexisting conditions and now have access to insurance.  He will have a lot of explaining to do.  He will be playing defense on many fronts.

It is time to take a positive agenda to citizens.  It is time to be proactive.  It is time to be assertive.  It is time to face the future as an opportunity rather than something to be feared.  It is time to speak with passion and to light the fires of hope again.


Response Letter to Lexington Herald Leader

Dear Editor,

Candidate photoI have important policy differences with Ms. Grimes, your  May 11 endorsement description to the contrary.   I invite your readers to scan the Herald Leader’s Voter Guide and read the KFTC Voters Guide at   Here are but two examples of such policy differences.

Ms. Grimes tours the Commonwealth promoting a jobs plan that she can’t explain according to your political reporter.   We first need a Prevent Job Destruction Plan that reins in a financial system that destroyed millions of jobs in the great recession.   I advocate reinstituting Glass Steagall, using antitrust to break up the “Too Big To Fail Banks”, and restoring full funding to the SEC and other regulatory financial regulatory agencies.  Regulators must enforce our laws.

Our most fundamental problem, however, is that our representatives no longer represent “We the People”.  Senators spend 20 plus hours a week begging out of state strangers for money.  These contributors expect party line votes and they get them.  This polarizes Congress, undermines compromise and creates gridlock.  A gridlocked legislature creates a vacuum that presidential power inevitably fills.  This unbalances our system and threatens our liberty.  This is a systemic problem.  We need to elect representatives who understand the problem and are committed to fixing it.  Ms. Grimes is enmeshed in the campaign finance system.  It seems unlikely that she will be dedicated to overhauling it.  I understand the problem.  I will diligently work to negotiate solutions that fix it.

Greg Leichty
Democratic Candidate for United States Senate

Toward a More Rational Federal Government Budgeting Process

The Candidate photoultimate aim of budgeting for the federal government should be to aim balance the budget over the business cycle. It would be optimal for the federal government to run surpluses during periods of economic expansion and to run deficits in times of economic downturn.

Contrary to current practice, the appropriate time to cut government spending is during times of economic expansion. When the economy is growing significantly, expansive federal spending can contribute to inflation. Restraining and even cutting federal spending during a time of broad economic expansion can serve to keep the economy from overheating.

Also contrary to current practice, the absolute worst time to attempt to restrain federal spending is during a period of economic contraction. During such periods, we rely on stabilizers such as unemployment insurance to lessen the impact of the economic downturn on ordinary people. Public expenditures also serve to stimulate the economy without contributing to inflation. Indeed, the costs of goods (e.g., needed infrastructure) for the government during a downturn will on average be significantly less than the cost of similar goods during an economic upturn. In other words, buying needed infrastructure during economic downturns should save money.

The federal government should thus engage in long-term planning to make its practices rationally align with the ordinary business cycle. This can be done in several ways. First, needed infrastructure projects should be planned for well ahead of time. They should be vetted and plans put in place for deployment during the next significant recessionary period. Quick enactment of “shovel ready” projects would make the economic stimulus more timely, more rational and more productive. Current practice falls far short of this and frankly is haphazard and inefficient.

Economic should also be programmed according to a predetermined schedule. In particular, unemployment insurance during expansionary economic times should be set at the something like the standard 26 weeks (e.g. 3% growth & 5% unemployment). The duration of unemployment benefits, however, would be automatically programmed to go up or down according to a preset formula. As economic growth slows down and unemployment increases, the duration of unemployment insurance would also increase in duration as the normal period required for finding employment is significantly more difficult in recessionary periods. The government would preset the levels at which the duration of unemployment benefits would grow longer and return back to the base level. These levels would be set by a formula put in place by appropriate legislation. This would remove a significant source of uncertainty in the economy during recessionary periods. It would get us past the haphazard and improvisational negotiations of current political practice.

A similar stabilizer should be put in practice should be put in place to sustain employment in the public sector by state and local governments during a downturn. During an economic downturn, we continue to need teachers, firefighters, and police officers at pretty much the same level as during periods of economic expansion. Putting in place low-interest loans to be given to localities and states to sustain essential services would serve to significantly cushion both the economic and social effects of economic contraction. Such loans would become available for local governments to borrow when the appropriate indices were triggered (economic growth goes negative and unemployment rises above 6%). State and local governments would be contractually obligated to repay the loans in subsequent periods when economic expansion returns. This set of stabilizers would again significantly reduce the degree of economic uncertainty in economic contractions and would be more rational and systematic than our current system of episodic improvisational political haggling over these matters.

Most economists would agree that such principles are more rational than our current system of haphazardly improvising during each episode of economic contraction.  Our Congress can perform much better. It is time to demand that it does.

Greg Leichty

Getting a Grip on Potentially Dangerous Chemicals

Candidate photoOne of the ironies of the recent chemical leak in West Virginia is that we really have no data on how toxic the chemical that leaked really was. Why is that?   It turns out that the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) allows the EPA to direct companies to do research into the effects of particular chemicals only when the EPA has clear evidence of the toxicity of a substance.   This creates a Catch-22, because the EPA is unlikely to have suspicion that a chemical is unsafe unless it has good data on the chemical to begin with.  In other words, we are flying blind when it comes to knowing how we should regulate and plan for storing all kinds of potentially hazardous chemicals.

The TSCA was last amended in 1976.  Clearly it needs to be brought up to date to allow a more proactive research stance.  The EPA needs to be able to conduct or order research into the toxicity of a substance BEFORE a public health emergency occurs.   There is no reason that we should wait until another public health catastrophe to fix this problem in our research programs.  It is of particular note that this move is supported by industry groups too.  For instance, Anne Womack Kolton  of the American Chemistry Council says,  “We can increase transparency. We can give EPA the authority it needs. And we can give all consumers greater confidence that the chemicals in the products they rely on every day are safe for that use.”1

I support amending the TSCA. I intend to ask the other candidates if they support such an effort too.


Politics is Not War

Candidate photoA person on Twitter informed me the other day that Matt Bevin would never compromise with Barack Obama unlike Mitch McConnell. My reply was–Politics is not conquest. Let me explain.  Yes, we have winners and losers in elections, but members of the opposition are always going to be present in legislatures where laws are made.  We do not banish opponents.

Competition in politics is necessary. The give and take of dialogue AND criticism leads us to discard some ideas, amend others, and accept others that are rather different than our original positions. We do compete, but we do so cooperatively. Does that sound like a paradox? Not really. Any competitive game operates with a system of rules and an agreed upon protocol for enforcing those rules. Even when referees do not call the game, players operating on the honor system still usually have an honor system for making calls and negotiating differences. We cooperate by following the rules.

We cooperate at a deeper level as we argue and compete as well. In the case of politics, we are presumably debating and arguing about what the common good is and/or how we can best achieve agreed upon goals about the common good. In the end, we put our beliefs, values and priorities at risk. We agree to listen to each other; we agree to criticize each other’s ideas, but to keep that disagreement from degenerating into an all out personal attack on people on the other side. Though we compete at one level, we cooperate in a search for how to better accommodate the common good.

The goal of politics in a diversified group of citizens spread out over many time zones, climates, and environmental contexts naturally leads to differences in perspective. Many folks these days are quite fond of saying the Federalist papers. Well please read Federalist #10 again self-styled patriots. Interest in finding mutually acceptable accommodations with diverse opponents is what the political system is supposed to do.

If an aspirant for political office is unwilling to seek deals with the President, s/he is running for the wrong office. So is anyone else who shares the same outlook–no matter whether their philosophy may be (right or left). If all or most of your metaphors for political activity come from warfare, you are playing the wrong game.

Politics should not be warfare. We must resist the siren call of those who want to make it so.

Greg Leichty

Democratic Candidate for United States Senate

Some Recent Interviews and Press Coverage



Following are some links to some Press coverage related to the campaign during the period of April 26-May 3rd.


If you didn’t get to see the Democratic debate Monday evening, here is the link.

CN2 Interview dated Monday, April 28, but filmed back in March.

Here is a short story from WEKU FM from an interview the same night as the debate.

KET Senate debate Highlights

Broadcast on WHAS on Saturday, April 28, See 10 minute interview segment beginning at 8 minutes.

25 minute Interview filmed with WBKO in Bowling Green,  on April 22.

Written Summary of some debate highlights from KET website.