Aug 20, 2019

Does Bipartisanship on Capitol Hill Really Exist?

Does bipartisanship in Congress exist? The short answer: Yes.  

Recently, four members of Congress, including Modernization Committee Chairman Derek Kilmer (D-WA) and committee member Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), discussed how they work with colleagues across the aisle at a forum, “Legislating From The Middle,” hosted by Center Forward and The Well News. The lawmakers – Reps. Kilmer, Davis, Katko (R-NY), and Murphy (D-FL) – are all known for working across the aisle to get things done. In fact, three of the four have participated in the Bipartisan Policy Center’s American Congressional Exchange program, which pairs members of Congress from divergent districts and parties to visit each other’s districts  to help them find common ground and build trust to take back to Washington. They spoke about their experiences collaborating with colleagues in the opposite party and the importance of bipartisanship in legislating.   

So, how does bipartisanship in D.C. actually come to fruition? Here are three key takeaways from “Legislating From The Middle”:  

 1. We can aim for bold legislative solutions, but they also need to have a chance to cross the finish line.  

Chairman Kilmer noted that a lot of what Congress is working on represents common-sense legislation that could pass if we would put aside partisanship. He added that most Americans don’t care if Congress swings more to the left or more to the right, they simply want Congress to stop going backward and start moving forward. Speaking on his work with the New Democrat Coalition, Rep. Kilmer noted that the group wants to drive big, bold solutions that actually have a chance of making it to the finish line. They can’t be too much to the left or too much to the right, because those bills aren’t likely to garner enough support to pass both chambers of Congress. To actually get bipartisan policies passed into law, members must propose realistic legislation that has the potential to gain support from both sides of the aisle in both chambers 

 2. Congress is prioritizing bipartisanship more than you see. 

Though Rep. Kilmer mentioned that Congress has at times earned its low approval ratings among constituents, the members all echoed the same sentiment that Congress is in fact working towards bipartisan solutions. When asked about why he feels committed to pursuing bipartisanship in Congress, Rep. Kilmer referred to his reasons for running for office. He recalled making a pro-con list about running, adding a “broken Washington” to the con side. He added, however, that this con turned into a pro.  He wanted to run because Washington is broken, and he saw an opportunity to contribute to fixing it. And now, he’s actively working to do so as Chairman of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.  

Compromise is especially important to members of Congress who wish to drive bipartisan solutions in policymaking. “The far-right and the far left do not bend,” Rep. Katko said. “I want to get to the point where compromise is cool again.” Rep. Davis added that things can get done in Congress when these movements are led by members who have proven records of accomplishment. Though many people don’t see it, much of what gets done on the floor is bipartisan, he argues. In fact, Rep. Katko said he never introduces a bill without a Democratic co-sponsor.  

But if Congress is really working on a bipartisan basis, why don’t we see it? Rep. Davis mentioned the 24-hour news cycle as one of the reasons Americans don’t often know about the bipartisan things Congress is doing. Any bipartisan achievements often become tiny blip during the constant partisan ranting.  But efforts such as the creation of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress demonstrate how bipartisanship can make headway in Congress even though we don’t always perceive it. 

3. Bipartisanship is hard, but it’s worth it. 

Calling the effort to make Congress work more down the middle a “Herculean task,” Rep. Katko emphasized the need to continue showing the American public that bipartisanship works. Rep. Davis, who was a congressional staffer before winning his own seat in the House, noted that he saw significant changes in the legislative process when he returned to Congress as a member. He noticed that it has become much more difficult to pass bipartisan bills, which didn’t line up with his preconceived notions about how he could get things done as a member based on what he previously experienced as a staffer.

Rep. Katko described it as “walking on a tightrope,” saying it’s the right thing to do and members of Congress just need to be willing to do it because bipartisanship can work. And for those who are willing, they must be aware of the backlash they might receive for choosing to pursue bipartisanship efforts over party priorities.  

Rep. Murphy added that when you are working to find common ground as a member of Congress, you’re likely to be hit by both the left and the right. But for her, that doesn’t matter: “As long as we’re moving the country forward—that’s my goal,” she said. Rep. Murphy comes from a zero-partisan tilt district, meaning that 1/3 of her constituents are Republicans, 1/3 are Democrats, and 1/3 are neither. Because of her ideologically diverse district, Rep. Murphy knows firsthand the importance of working across the aisle.  

She pointed to a specific example.  Before the November 2018 election, she and a bipartisan group of supporters were working on something they called “the speakers project”: a rules package that would make it more difficult for a small group to call for the speakership of the House to be vacated, but that also had the potential to lessen the power of the majority. The controversial rules package was already in motion before anyone knew who would control the House, so when Rep. Murphy’s own party came into power she and other members of the Blue Dog Coalition had to stand firm and convince Speaker Pelosi and Democratic leadership that they weren’t just handing power over to the Republicans. Now, with the first bipartisan House Rules package in 20+ years in place, the Speaker doesn’t have to please either the far left or the far right only, due to concern for someone trying to remove them. By pushing party leadership to support a bipartisan solution, Rep. Murphy and others were able to bring about change that will help Congress work better no matter who has the gavel. 

The bottom line? Creating a Congress that works requires civility, trust, and a willingness to find common ground on addressing deep-rooted issues. Fortunately, there are members already doing so and the Modernization Committee in place to explore how to make bipartisanship more widespread.  When Congress is committed to putting aside differences and choosing bipartisanship, it can work effectively for the American people. Center Forward and The Well News’ forum on legislating from the middle provides encouragement that Congress can function on a bipartisan basis if members commit to it.  

Is Congress Working for You?