I Write Goals Not Policies: ‘Responsible Party Government’ Meets Environmentalism

By Clayton Becker

Do our political parties operate the way a major theory of how they should work claims? Clayton Becker examines how the parties and elected officials have handled environmental issues, especially climate change, and finds the theory severely wanting.

In the middle of the 20th century, many political scientists, chief among them E.E. Schattschneider, worried that the quality of American government was suffering because there was not enough disagreement between the two parties; they weren’t presenting different options to the American people. It is understandable why scholars may have had reason to be worried. Democrats had been in power for a generation, and hadn’t seriously been challenged by Republicans during that time. Meanwhile, interest groups were starting to proliferate and exert more pressure on politics in Washington. A relatively homogenous policy space might be more susceptible to those pressures while strong commitments to opposing policy programs could serve as a bulwark against their growing influence. These worries culminated in the famous 1950 APSA report “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System.”

The report lays out a plan for what such a system would look like. The authors’ primary contention is that, “an effective party system requires, first, that the parties are able to bring forth programs to which they commit themselves and, second, that the parties possess sufficient internal cohesion to carry out these programs,” and that such programs must be paired with measures to improve the popular accountability of the two major parties.1 To this challenge they also provide an answer, writing that, “the fundamental requirement of such accountability is a two-party system in which the opposition party acts as the critic of the party in power, developing, defining and presenting the policy alternatives which are necessary for a true choice in reaching public decisions.”2

In short, parties should have clearly defined policy platforms which they write into law when elected, andthose platforms should present serious policy alternatives to the public so that the public can hold the parties accountable for failing to follow through on those objectives. According to the theory, this system would lead to better policy outcomes.

There is considerable evidence that the parties listened to these recommendations. Party platforms have grown considerably longer, and competition and polarization have increased. A brief look at DW-NOMINATE scores of Congressmembers reveals that the average absolute value has risen from around .28 for those serving in the 79th congress to just over .4 today in the 116th.3 Likewise, the average distance between members has grown from around .5 when the APSA report was published to just below .9 in the House and .8 in the Senate.4 With political divides as sharp as this, it is no surprise we commonly hear that we live in a hyper-polarized, mean-spirited time. As Frances E. Lee writes in Insecure Majorities, today “[parties] look for ways to make its opposition appear weak and incompetent, as well as ideologically extreme and out of touch with mainstream public opinion. As parties angle for competitive advantage using such tactics, the upshot is a more confrontational style of partisanship in Congress.”5

This paper aims to examine responsible party government as it relates to the environmental issues which arose over the course of the 20th century, particularly as it relates to policies and views on climate change, in a three-part framework. First, it analyzes party’s stated positions, both in terms of how much parties appear to care and what positions they take. Second, it investigates the extent to which the parties have sought to implement those policies and how successful they have been. Third and finally, it looks at whether the current state of affairs matches well with the tenets of RPG and whether or not responsible party governance is an appropriate lens through which to view environmental policy in the first place.

Political Positioning in the Environmental Space
Environmentalism has become an issue of more pressing concern for both political parties since the mid twentieth century. According to data from the Comparative Agendas Project, the space in each party’s platform devoted to environmental issues has increased substantially since mid-century. In 1948, the first year for which data is available, the Democratic platform contained only five words about environmental issues, which were about soil conservation. The Republican platform contained just 37 words, also about soil conservation. By 2016, both spent over 1000 words on environmental issues. During this time, the parties grew apart on issues of environmental protection.

Figures 1-2: Environmental Language in Platforms Over Time (see bottom of page for graph)

After a period of widespread agreement through the early 1970s, we observe a change in rhetoric starting in 1976, as the Republican party platform began to incorporate language about balancing economic growth with environmental protection. By 1988, while still making a verbal commitment to environmental needs, the platform read, unambiguously, “These goals can and must be achieved without harmful economic dislocation.”6 In 1992 the party maintained that “economic growth generates the capital to pay for environmental gains,” while condemning the environmental degradation of the Soviet Bloc as part of the evils of socialism and evidence of the need for free market solutions to environmental problems while still not yet opposing regulation as a rule. But by 1996, the party began to openly oppose certain environmental regulations, writing, “Despite scientific uncertainty about the role of human activity in climate change, the Clinton Administration has leapfrogged over reasoned scientific inquiry and now favors misdirected measures.”

Through all of this time, the Republican Party still favored at least some environmental protections. In 2004 they even supported a cap-and-trade regime for some of the more harmful toxins in industrial emissions, such as mercury and sulfur dioxide. Even as late at 2008, the Republican platform suggested providing economic incentives for environmental protection, while President Bush spoke about “confronting global climate change” in his final State of the Union Address.7

But by 2012, things had changed completely. There are half a dozen references to reining in “activist” regulators and judges, calls for revisions to laws so it will be harder to sue development projects over environmental concerns, and criticisms and even mockery of the Obama administration’s ranking of climate change as a top national security risk. 2016 saw more of the same, the platform contains numerous references to “radical environmentalists…[whose] approach is based on shoddy science, scare tactics…and has triggered an avalanche of regulation that wreaks havoc across our economy.” It refers to the UN’s IPCC as “a political mechanism, not an unbiased scientific institution” whose “unreliability is reflected in its intolerance toward scientists and others who dissent from its orthodoxy”. Throughout the entirety of the 2016 Republican Platform, there are no policy proposals for combating climate change, only calls for burdensome regulation to be undone. President Trump has yet to mention environmental issues of any kind in the State of the Union.

Democrats’ rhetoric largely mirrored their Republican counterparts until the Nixon administration, but since the mid-1970s they have taken a much harder line on environmental protection. While the Republicans began to prioritize economics over environmental protection, the Democratic platform read, “The Democratic Party’s strong commitment to environmental quality is based on its conviction that environmental protection is not simply an aesthetic goal, but is necessary to achieve a more just society.” Moreover, the platform contended, “Environmental legislation enacted since 1970 already has produced more than one million jobs.” In 1984, the platform included a reauthorized clean air act, an increased budget for the EPA, and nearly 500 words on toxic waste disposal and industrial pollution.

The next important shift came during the 1992 campaign, which featured the Democrats’ first mention of being a leader in the fight against global warming. Prior to this point, both parties had focused their environmental pronouncements on environmental toxicity issues like acid rain and industrial waste disposal. But, with Clinton’s victory in 1992, Democrats began to shift much more of their rhetoric to the challenges of climate change. In every election since 1992, the Democrats have increased the amount of platform space devoted to climate change and global warming, from just 32 words in 1992, to almost 900 in 2016. By 2016, while the Republican platform excoriated the IPCC as a political body, the Democratic platform spoke of a “climate emergency” and stated quite plainly that “climate change poses an urgent and severe threat to our national security.” Likewise, this shift wasn’t limited to the party platform. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama together account for 40 percent of all environmental language in States of the Union since 1946, and a full two-thirds of all climate language in the State of the Union since 1965.

The increase in climate language has affected both parties, but has been decidedly asymmetrical. While both parties have increased the amount of overall environmental language in their platforms, a closer analysis shows that the Democrats spend much more time on climate change than all other environmental issues.

Figure 3 (see bottom of page for graph)

One possible explanation for this asymmetry is that climate change is a much more important issue for the Democratic voter base than it is for Republicans, less than a quarter of whom believe climate change is caused by humans in the first place.8-9 Whatever the reason, it is clear that Democrats see climate change as a more important issue for their party, while Republicans prioritize other environmental issues and take very different positions on nearly all those issue areas.

On the whole then, the first component of the RPG model appears satisfied. The parties have taken clear and divergent positions on environmental issues, and have largely stuck to those positions over time, especially since the mid-1970s. However, there is an issue of policy vs goals. Responsible Party Government is nominally supposed to be about presenting policy alternatives to the public. However, closer analysis of environmental language also suggests that the proportion of clear policy language has been declining precipitously over the last 70 years. This is an imperfect categorization, not based on natural language processing, but it hints that policy as platitude and party contrast is gradually replacing policy as policy.

Environmental Legislation in Congress
Despite the parties’ increased focus on climate change and environmental protection in their party platforms, substantive legislation has yet to materialize. According to the Library of Congress, only 23 novel environmental laws have been passed during the 21st century.10 Even including amendments and clarifications, only 40 pieces of legislation have become law. Moreover, none of these pieces of legislation were specifically designed to tackle climate change. Only three pieces of climate specific legislation have even received floor consideration this millennium, and none of them have become law.

This is not to say that members have not tried to pass environmental legislation: they have. Since the mid 1970s, more than 6,000 pieces of environmental legislation have been introduced, and more than 1,600 have received at least committee consideration.11 Additionally, at least for Democrats, the average number of co-sponsors for an environmental bill is much higher than for a generic bill with slightly more than 14 co-sponsors on average. This suggests that there is a higher degree of party unity and support for environmental priorities than for policy priorities at large among Democrats.12 That said, introducing volumes of legislation and getting co-sponsors matters little if it never gets passed through both Houses of Congress and signed by the President.

Moreover, the kind of environmental legislation that has been passed is almost entirely consensus legislation and centers on cleaning up toxins or allowing for more flexibility in the use of funds allocated for environmental programs. Nearly all the issues tackled are those upon which the parties agreed back in the 1970s.

The public statements of the parties have changed dramatically since the mid-20th century, but environmental legislation is still stuck there; neither party has been able to legislate effectively on new challenges. The climate policy that is enacted is almost entirely done through rule changes in executive departments.

In one sense this mirrors the legislative back and forth RPG theorists may have envisioned. After all, the executive branch is uniquely placed to determine how laws passed by Congress are to be enforced. In theory, legislative action may not be necessary if the administrative state can achieve the same result. However, this is far from a forgone conclusion. Executive action only leaves so much room for policy differentiation to take effect; it is much harder to undo acts of Congress, and the legislature holds the all too crucial power of the purse. Even more to the point, especially as environmental policy is concerned, only Congress can authorize the necessary funds for serious climate policy.

As a result, it is difficult to say that the second pillar of responsible party government theory has been satisfied. It is clear that the parties attempt to translate their environmental priorities into law, but the extent of their success is essentially limited to executive actions. Despite the expansion of the executive branch, that simply isn’t enough for the tenets of RPG. As far as being able to take their stated policy positions and make them law, the parties have been largely unsuccessful.

What’s the Matter with RPG?
One of the criticisms of RPG theory is that increased policy competition leads to more polarization, but the extent to which RPG theory has directly contributed to the increase in polarization in the United States is unclear. RPG theorists would certainly say it hasn’t. The APSA report reads that “needed clarification of party policy will not cause the parties to differ more fundamentally or more sharply than they have in the past.”13 In fact, they argued that clarification of policy alternatives would help avoid an “unbridgeable political cleavage.”14 The experience of the 20th century indicates that this view was mistaken, but still is not sufficient to say with confidence that RPG is at fault.

In any event, the causal relationship is not critical. Regardless of whether RPG has caused polarization, it is clear that polarization makes the goals of RPG harder to achieve. The original RPG theorists lived in a time when the desire of the legislature to legislate was paramount. Cooperative leadership styles dominated and the policy alternatives of both parties were present both in the committee room as well as on the campaign trail. However, throughout the 1980s and 90s, the desire to legislate cooperatively was gradually replaced by a messaging battle where the goal was to achieve or retain majority status in both chambers of congress and the White House. As one congressional aide told Frances Lee, “the only type of legislation on the floor these days is message related.”15

Increased competition encourages a more adversarial style of politics which precludes the kind of compromise needed for genuine, sustained legislative achievement. This more “parliamentary style of party politics in Congress,” emerges because both parties view believe that being in the majority is the only way they will be able to legislate.16 However, the American system is designed specifically to constrain the actions of the majority. The end result of this system is that the parties are mostly unable to pass their major policy proposals no matter whether they hold the majority. That mixture, of a system that demands consensus for policymaking, but is as competitive as majoritarian parliamentarism, is a recipe for increased adversity without increased policy action. As Lee writes, “no US political party commands the kind of power that theories of responsible party government call for.”17

This view is borne out by the data: increasing partisanship has coincided with a sustained decline in the number of pieces of legislation passed by Congress.18 This is a crude measure to be sure; there are numerous factors which likely contribute to this decline. However, it strains credulity to think that polarization plays no role whatsoever. As a longtime Senate aide told Lee, “messaging escalates the conflict. It makes it harder to legislate.”19 It seems evident that polarization and competition make legislating harder, even under unified government.20 Environmental legislation has been no exception; the 115th and 111th Congresses passed just three and five pieces of environmental legislation respectively while the 96th Congress, the last of the “permanent Democratic majority”, passed 20. In a government dominated by polarization, gridlock, and messaging battles, less policy not better policy, has been the outcome.

But, perhaps the biggest reason that RPG hasn’t worked for environmental legislation is that it is simply inappropriate as far as environmental issues are concerned. Environmental issues are unique in the issue space for two reasons. Firstly, there is no serious disagreement about the facts of the issue within the scientific community. According to the most comprehensive review of the science done to date, 97% of climate research affirms human caused climate change.21 There is no other issue where the facts so clearly favor one party over the other. Secondly, climate change is an issue with a finite time horizon. Poverty reduction programs, housing policy, criminal justice reform etc. are all important, but none of them pose the same kind of existential threat or are as global in scope as climate change. It is not an issue space that lends itself to policy alternatives as a general rule, and one that lends itself even less to policy alternatives from a party which essentially abdicates responsibility to address the problem.

RPG theorists wrote during a time when politicians and voters were essentially working with an agreed upon set of facts and disagreement was centered on what the proper solution to the problem should be. Today, especially with respect to environmental issues and climate change more specifically, the two parties seem unable to agree on whether there is a problem, let alone how to solve it. As a result, even if the US’ political structure allowed for a truer expression of responsible party government, it is inadvisable to apply RPG to the climate issue space. In an ideal world, the parties would not subscribe to RPG at all on issues of climate protection. We largely know what kinds of policies are necessary to mitigate the effects of climate change; we should implement them without needing to present policy alternatives to the public. This is unlikely to occur of course, but it illustrates the extent to which our politics and theories of what constitutes effective governance are ill-suited to the defining issue of our time.

On balance, the responsible party governance model is a poor fit for the environmental space. The parties have taken divergent stances on the issue, but that is about all that they’ve accomplished as far as RPG is concerned. The last two decades have been a story of the legislature failing to act on important priorities, a story that is not unique to environmental issues. At a basic level, the goals of responsible party government are largely impossible to have in the United States, especially in our historically competitive time.

Moreover, even if our system more closely resembled the RPG ideal, there is little reason to suspect that environmental policy would be greatly improved. Environmental policy is unique among issue areas and does not easily lend itself to discussion and debate over policy alternatives. It requires decisive and unified policy action that will not be reversed or hamstrung as soon as the opposition takes power. It is a picture at odds with both the current state of American political parties and the tenets of responsible party governance. As far as climate change and environmentalism are concerned, the responsible party governance model is inappropriate and to further subscribe to it would do more than good in the policymaking space.

1“Summary of Conclusions and Proposals,” The American Political Science Review 44, no. 3 (1950): 1–14, . Page 1.
2 “Part I. The Need for Greater Party Responsibility,” The American Political Science Review 44, no. 3 (1950): 15–36, https://doi.org/10.2307/1950999. Pages 17-18.
3 Lewis, Jeffrey B., Keith Poole, Howard Rosenthal, Adam Boche, Aaron Rudkin, and Luke Sonnet (2019). Voteview: Congressional Roll-Call Votes Database. https://voteview.com/
4See Appendix-Figure A for a graphical representation of the distance between parties over time.
5Lee, Frances E. Insecure majorities: Congress and the perpetual campaign. University of Chicago Press, 2016. Page 2.
6Christina Wolbrecht, American Political Party Platforms: 1948-2008. Comparative Agendas Project.
7States of the Union. The Policy Agendas Project at the University of Texas at Austin, 2017. www.comparativeagendas.net.
8 “A Look at How People around the World View Climate Change,” Pew Research Center (blog), accessed December 4, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/18/a-look-at-how-people-ar....
9“How Americans See Climate Change in 5 Charts,” Pew Research Center (blog), accessed November 30, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/19/how-americans-see-clima....
10Library of Congress, Legislative Search Results
11See Appendix Figure B for a graphical representation of legislative activity vs legislative success on environmental issues.
12Democrats also introduce a large majority of climate change related legislation. Of the 1,616 pieces of legislation that have received at least committee consideration, 59.7% were introduced by Democrats. Of the 676 that received floor consideration, Democrats introduced 63.3%.
13“Summary,” 2.
14Ibid, Page 14.
15Lee, 150.
16 Ibid, 179.
17Ibid, 61
18See Appendix Figure C for a graphical representation of congressional law making over time.
19 Lee, 51.
20See Table A for a brief regression analysis of the effect of polarization on the chance that a motion (of any type) passes in Congress.
21ohn Cook et al., “Quantifying the Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming in the Scientific Literature,” Environmental Research Letters 8, no. 2 (May 2013): 024024, https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/8/2/024024.