Is Bipartisanship a Myth?
“I have made it very clear ... we’re going to make this work in a bipartisan way.” That was Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) back in February when Congress was trying to pass President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 relief legislation. In the intervening months, the senator has continued be make it painfully clear that he is reticent to sign onto any piece of legislation — be it a voting rights bill or an infrastructure package — unless that bill has support from lawmakers in both parties.
Some members of Washington’s chattering class have questioned Sen. Manchin’s position. The left-leaning magazine The Nation said Sen. Manchin cares more about bipartisanship than fighting racism. A Washington Post columnist questioned whether the senator really is committed to the cause, and an Atlantic headline called his quest to bring the two parties together “foolish.”
Is it? Is Congress too divided to get anything done? What about the American people?
Let’s take a look.
Americans Are Divided — Except When It Comes To Bipartisanship
A week after last year’s presidential and congressional elections, the Pew Research Center summarized some recent findings on Americans’ political divisions. Pew said Democrats and Republicans “believe the differences between them are about more than just politics and policies.” Divides go deeper, we think. Indeed, researchers cited a poll from October 2020 that found about 80 percent of registered voters said their differences with people in the other party were about core American values.
Ninety percent of respondents “worried that a victory by the other would lead to ‘lasting harm’ to the United States.”
Unsurprisingly, that finding means we are less likely to be friends with a member of the other party. Another poll released last fall found 24 percent of Democrats acknowledged they are not friends with anyone who holds very different political views. That number represented a 14-point increase from September 2016. (For Republicans, the number rose from 10 percent to 12 percent. For independents, it increased 12 percent to 20 percent.)
Americans may not agree on the issues, but we want to overcome these divisions. And we definitely want our federal lawmakers to do the same.
According to a Morning Consult survey taken this May, 78 percent of Democrats and 76 percent of Republicans said they are more likely to respect lawmakers if they make efforts to get bipartisan support for their initiatives. Additionally, 71 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans said policies that have bipartisan support are the best policies. Only 28 percent of Democrats and 22 percent of Republicans said they think it is a waste of lawmakers’ time to try to generate bipartisan support for legislation.
A Public Agenda/USA TODAY poll released in early 2021 found 93 percent of Americans believe it is important to reduce the country's current divides, including two-thirds who told the pollsters that it is very important to do reduce divisions. Americans feel so strongly about this mission that they have taken matters into their own hands, at least somewhat. The survey found 60 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of Democrats each said they have had “constructive” conversations with someone whose political views are different from their own.
Friendship, it turns out, is not totally off the table.
Where Republicans and Democrats do disagree is whether they think bipartisanship is necessary in the current legislative context. When asked by Morning Consult if it is better to have no action in Congress rather than partisan progress, 59 percent of Republicans said no action is better. Only 37 percent of Democrats felt the same. Those numbers obviously reflect the fact that Democrats are currently in control of Congress — if that group of lawmakers makes a go of it alone, members of their party will be happy with the outcome. Republicans will not.
So if both Republicans and Democrats want bipartisanship, and are even having conversations to try to achieve it themselves, who do we blame for the country’s partisan tenor?
The lawmakers themselves, of course. According to the Public Agenda/USA TODAY survey, 77 percent of Americans think the country’s inability to get things done and to disagree constructively comes from the top down. Less than one quarter (23 percent) said the toxicity in U.S. politics is driven from the people themselves.
Is that blame well placed? Perhaps not.
Congress Has Actually Gotten (Slightly) Less Partisan
After each session of Congress, the Lugar Center (named for the late Sen. Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican) releases an index that ranks each member of Congress based on their efforts to achieve bipartisanship.
Readers might be surprised that after partisanship reached an apex in 2013, things have improved. The Lugar Center said the 113th Congress (2013-14), which saw, among other things, multiple votes on repealing the Affordable Care Act,“ was one of the most partisan of the past 20 years.” In the 114th Congress, however, 61 senators improved their bipartisanship index scores. Scores dropped for only 23 senators. In the House, scores improved for 212 lawmakers and fell for only 139.
In the 115th Congress (2017-2018), the average House score improved and the Senate scores rose above their historical average for the first time since 2008. Maria Cancian, dean of Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, which partners with the Lugar Center to create the index, said, “In today’s polarized political environment, it can often seem like our lawmakers are working against one another, rather than for their constituents … And yet our latest Bipartisan Index … points to more cooperation among lawmakers.”
Matters improved even more in 2019 and 2020. Just last month, the Lugar Center reported, “In the Senate, both Republican and Democratic Senators scored above the historical average, with Republican senators holding a higher cumulative score than their Democratic counterparts. In the House, however, Democrats outscored Republicans, with both parties scoring only slightly above the historical norm.”
Juneteenth: Hope For Bipartisanship?
We have some recent, tangible evidence from Washington that bipartisanship might not be extinct.
Last week, President Joe Biden signed legislation designating Juneteenth as a federal holiday. The last time Congress created a new holiday was 1983 when it honored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a remembrance. As CNBC said, “The bill to make Juneteenth the 12th federal holiday sailed through Congress ...” Not a single senator voted against the legislation and only 14 House members did. Contrast that with Congress’ experience four decades ago. In 1983, 90 House members (both Republicans and Democrats) voted against the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Eighteen senators — again from both parties — did the same. Congress actually voted down the holiday in 1979, four years before it reversed course.
But that’s a holiday. Has Congress gotten anything else done this year on a bipartisan basis?
Well, it certainly is trying. Ten Republican senators and 10 Democratic senators are currently negotiating a massive, bipartisan infrastructure package. The Senate also recently approved bipartisan legislation to try to help the United States match China’s growing prowess in the technology sector. That bill passed with the support of more than two-thirds of the Senate.
And then there is this: as scholars from the Brookings Institution reported in March, “While internecine political warfare is the most visible characteristic in Congress, outside the limelight the House-based bipartisan Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has been quietly working to make Congress operate better on behalf of the American people.” This body is tasked with studying and making recommendations to “make Congress more effective, efficient, and transparent on behalf of the American people.” Since it was established in 2019, the committee has unanimously approved 97 recommendations to help the legislative branch work more effectively and efficiently. Those include several ideas for reforming the troublesome annual budgeting process. The committee will continue its work until 2023.
So while you’d be forgiven for believing that Washington has devolved into nothing but partisan warfare, there is, in fact, reason for optimism.