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A Who's Who of Partisanship and Non-Partisanship in Congress

Series: Comment on Congress | Story 2

Back in mid-May, the Lugar Center and the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University released the latest of their studies looking at bipartisanship in the US House and Senate. They summed up the bottom line in their first sentence: "The results show a slight improvement in bipartisanship in 2023 but remained near record lows."

In the scheme of news stories coming out of Washington, the "Bipartisanship Index" rarely gets much ink, except for a one-day piece in the home newspapers of the most bipartisan members. But I can't help thinking that it deserves much more play.

Over the course of my career, two big things stood out to me about bipartisanship: Americans like it; and over the long haul, legislation passed with bipartisan support tends to show more staying power.

We live, of course, in intensely polarized times. But the history of Congress has shown that requiring lawmakers to compromise and work with their political adversaries often produces better legislation. It takes into account a broad range of views, produces wider acceptance both within a legislative body and in the public at large, and perhaps most important, gives the legislation a chance of surviving the next change in power. The history of the last six decades is filled with examples: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the creation of Medicare, the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Affordable Care Act, the 2021 Infrastructure Act...

Though Congress these days has a reputation as a bastion of partisanship, it's actually gotten a fair bit done across the aisles, from the budget to aid for Ukraine and Israel to, recently, measures aimed at reducing carbon emissions. Still, it's unlikely that we'll see major legislation of lasting importance out of this Congress. That's in part because, as measured by the Lugar Center and the McCourt School, partisanship remains the order of the day. To put it in numerical terms, in 2023, the researchers found, 44 senators scored above the historical average for bipartisanship, while 54 scored below it. On the House side, 129 members exceeded the historical bipartisan average, but a whopping 309 scored below it.

The index measures how often members introduce bills that attract co-sponsors from the other party and how often they co-sponsor bills introduced from across the aisle. There are other ways to measure partisanship: You might, for instance, look at the most important measures passed or not passed by each chamber and which members took the courageous step to cross the aisle on those. Still, the McCourt/Lugar index is informative. Its scoring finds Pennsylvania Republican Brian Fitzpatrick leading the House, followed by New York GOP Rep. Marc Molinaro and New Hampshire Democrat Chris Pappas. In the Senate, Maine Republican Susan Collins led things off, followed by Democrats Gary Peters of Michigan and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire.

At the bottom of the bipartisanship rankings in the House were Ohio GOP Rep. Jim Jordan, New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Missouri Democrat Cori Bush, New York Democrat Jamaal Bowman and Missouri Republican Eric Burlison. In the Senate, Alabama Republican Katie Britt ranked as the least bipartisan member of that chamber, followed by Missouri Republican Eric Schmitt, Washington state Democrat Patty Murray, Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson, and Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton.

Especially in this day and age, it takes backbone to be bipartisan. Some members feel more at home sticking with their tribe, while within a caucus, you're more likely to get called out for working with members across the aisle than for toeing the party line. But as Dick Lugar wrote when the center first unveiled the Bipartisanship Index some years back, "What we are measuring... is not so much the quality of legislation but rather the efforts of legislators to broaden the appeal of their sponsored legislation, to entertain a wider range of ideas, and to prioritize governance over posturing." Those are the values that help our representative democracy work, and the members who make it a priority deserve our gratitude.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

 

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