Science Proves It: The Senate Really Is Junior High

4 minute read

(Correction appended 4/11/14)

If you’re like most people, it’s been a while since you thought of the U.S. Senate as “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” a term popularized by, well, the U.S. Senate. Instead, you think of it more as a junior high cafeteria, where cliques form, snits play out and someone is always trying to give someone else a legislative wedgie. You don’t get a 9% approval rating by behaving like grownups.

Now there’s proof that the cafeteria image is more than just metaphor. According to a new study by the University of Toronto School of Management’s Jillian Chown and Christopher Liu, one of the least appreciated variables in determining whether any two senators will work and play well together is how close they sit to each other on the Senate floor—a jock table versus nerd table dynamic if ever there was one.

The investigators relied on a very big data set to do their work, surveying the seating chart and the ever-changing Senate make-up over the course of 10 Congresses—the 96th to the 106th, from 1979 to 2001. Some of the people who filled the seats then were institutions themselves: Edward Kennedy, Robert Byrd, Bob Dole. Some were one-term wonders: Carole Mosley Braun, Paula Hawkins, Mack Mattingly. There were, of course, only 100 senators at a time in any sample group, but over the course of those two decades, the number of s0-called dyads—the total number of possible one-on-one pairings between any particular pair of senators—was huge, a whopping 53,955.

As a measure of the senators’ collegiality, Chown and Liu looked to the number of bills they co-sponsored—essentially putting their names on another senator’s piece of legislation, either because they really did support it and planned to work for it, or because it’s just a free and easy way to take a ride on someone else’s work, often for legislation that will appeal to the voters at home. Either way, senators who can’t abide each other rarely get close enough to co-sponsor anything.

The researchers calculated that in a Senate chamber that measures 52 ft. by 85 ft. (16 m by 26 m), any one senator sits an average of 30 ft. (10 m) from any random other, though they may be as close as shoulder to shoulder if they share adjacent desks or as far as the full 85 ft. apart if they sit on what the researchers call the “distal wings” of the chamber. Since seniority determines who chooses desk location first when positions are shuffled every two years, it’s the newbies who typically find themselves sitting off at the sides and the ones with more longevity who gravitate toward their BFFs.

On the whole, any two senators who sat farther apart than the 30-ft. mean co-sponsored 7% fewer bills than the average senator, while those who sat closer than 30 ft. co-sponsored 7% more. Such a single-digit difference doesn’t seem like much, but during a 20-year sample period in which the share of bills the Senate actually passed ranged from a low of 4% to a high of just 17%, every edge a piece of legislation could garner meant a lot. That’s truer now than ever as Congress after Congress continue to set serial records for least productive ever.

A place of privilege, power and titanic egos like the Senate is hardly typical of all workplaces, but the get-close-to-do-good-work rule applies everywhere. One of the reasons telecommuting has been less successful than advertised is that even if technology makes it easy to get work done anywhere in the world, it can’t replace serendipity—the random scrap of exchanged conversation or the unplanned meeting of two people in a hallway that leads to great things, and sometimes great friendships. Marissa Mayer took a lot of heat when she assumed the reins at Yahoo and promptly canceled its generous telecommuting policy—and her decision may yet yield nothing but employee ill-will—but it was based on solid research in human behavior.

None of this may save Congress from itself. Children who can’t get along sometimes simply need to be separated for the sanity of the grownups around them. But if, as President Barack Obama perhaps naïvely hoped before the 2012 election, the partisan fever ever does break in Washington, the simple act of rubbing elbows—sometimes literally—on the Senate floor may turn out to be one of the simplest and best good-government tools there is.

(An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of one of the study’s authors. He is Jillian Chown.)

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