Issue suppression is a bipartisan problem
Philip Wallach and James Wallner for LegBranch: Leadership shapes the agenda to exclude cross-cutting issues (or, as with immigration, to give them only nominal chances) in order to differentiate their partisan brand and thereby maximize their electoral advantage. (Or so the story goes…)
Let us offer an example where issue suppression has been remarkably successful over the last decade, during majority control by both parties. In the wake of the financial crisis, there were huge reservoirs of political energy looking for retribution against America’s big banks, who had profited from bad practices and then been rewarded with government support. Retaliation would almost certainly have been a political winner, whether in the form of breaking up the businesses somehow or dramatically raising their required levels of capital. Our major piece of post-crisis financial regulation, the Dodd-Frank Act, took half-hearted approaches on both counts (by imposing the modest and largely ineffectual Volcker Rule that bans banks from proprietary trading, and by vaguely pushing for higher capital requirements). The policy merits of the more dramatic moves are highly debatable, but that debate has rarely taken place in Congress, and certainly none of the proposed legislative vehicles for dramatic action ever received extended consideration. Neither the Bailout Prevention Act of 2015, co-sponsored by Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and David Vitter, R-La., nor the Terminating Bailouts for Taxpayer Fairness Act of 2013, cosponsored by Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Vitter, ever made it out of committee.
From our perspective, this is no puzzle: Leaders can see that their members are internally divided on these questions, and they have no interest in seeing whether a complex, ideologically heterodox coalition could form. They might well offer policy justifications for their opposition, but the coalition-preservation explanation is almost certainly the real cause. As Lee Drutman explored, congressional leadership has generally done a masterful job suppressing issues that activate a pro- and anti-establishment cleavage, which cuts across the two parties.