Bipartisanship the “secret sauce” for effective lawmaking, despite rising polarization in Congress


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Capitol Hill (Unsplash)

After weeks of tense speculation over a looming financial catastrophe should the U.S. default on its debts, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and President Biden are finalizing terms for a bipartisan agreement to raise the debt ceiling. While it’s clear that a bipartisan deal is necessary for legislative action in a politically divided government, it’s less clear whether bipartisanship is similarly useful for individual legislators.

Despite perceptions that Congress is dominated by partisan interests, a new study finds that legislators who draw in cosponsors from both sides of the aisle are more effective.

Researchers with the Center for Effective Lawmaking analyzed more than 40 years of congressional data to determine whether effective legislators more frequently adopt a bipartisan or partisan approach to reaching their policy goals. They found that for both members of the House and Senate, legislative effectiveness is heightened when members build bipartisan coalitions around the bills they sponsor. This pattern holds over time and for both majority and minority legislators. 

The study is the first to take an individual- versus aggregate-level look at lawmakers’ efforts to build a coalition around their bills and how such strategies relate to their effectiveness in achieving policy goals. 

“In today’s closely divided and highly polarized political climate, partisan all-or-nothing policy proposals cannot solve the nation’s pressing policy problems,” said Craig Volden, professor of public policy and politics at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

“Lawmakers who recognize this, and do the hard work to form broader coalitions, have been finding much greater success. They offer a blueprint for constructive lawmaking that forms the bedrock of a healthy democracy,” Volden said.

The study was co-authored by Volden, Alan E. Wiseman, chair of the political science department and Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Political Science and Law at Vanderbilt University, and Laurel Harbridge-Yong, an associate professor of political science and a faculty fellow of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern. Volden and Wiseman are co-directors of the Center for Effective Lawmaking, the source of legislative effectiveness data used in the study. Harbridge-Yong is a faculty affiliate of the center.

“Our argument and findings are particularly novel because they point to the value of bipartisanship even in a highly polarized Congress where partisan conflict often seems the norm,” said Harbridge-Yong.

The Bipartisan Path to Effective Lawmaking” was published earlier this month in the Journal of Politics by University of Chicago Press. The study found that reciprocal relationships were key to increasing bipartisan support and legislative effectiveness. “Effective lawmakers are willing to support well-thought-out proposals across the aisle and in turn receive bipartisan support for their best policy solutions,” Volden said.

Examining the relationship between bipartisanship and effectiveness, the study found that building bipartisan coalitions on the bills a member sponsors is positively associated with her legislative effectiveness score.

Data between 1973 (to coincide with the beginning of the modern Congress) and 2016 (when the research project began) was reviewed to assess whether the value of bipartisanship has declined over time. Findings showed that even as polarization in Congress has risen, bipartisanship is associated with increased effectiveness for both majority and minority party members.

Examples of legislators who scored high on the bipartisan metric included senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and the late John McCain (R-AZ). In the 113th Congress, Sen. Murkowski introduced 43 public bills, 33 of which drew cosponsors. In the 107th Congress, Sen. McCain introduced 45 bills and 31 drew cosponsors. The average proportion of bipartisan cosponsors attracted for these bills was a striking 85% for Murkowski and 67% for McCain. Both had high legislative effectiveness scores compared to similarly positioned members. Legislators who scored low on the bipartisan metric included former senators Rick Santorum (R-PA) in the 105th Congress and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) in the 114th Congress. Their average proportion of bipartisan cosponsors attracted was 3% and 14% respectively. Both legislators had low legislative effectiveness scores.

“In the context of a political climate where bipartisanship and compromise seem like harmful traits in primary elections, or when high-profile initiatives reflect the majority party steamrolling the minority, these are surprising findings that point to the continued value of bipartisanship,” Harbridge-Yong said.

“This study complements recently published research that demonstrate that those U.S. Representatives who are more effective lawmakers generally fare better in their primary elections than less effective lawmakers, Wiseman said. “In combination with the findings of the current study, our most recent article establishes a connection between how legislating in a bipartisan manner can contribute to greater lawmaking effectiveness, which, in turn, can pay off electorally for incumbent members of Congress.”

How the study was done

To measure the extent of legislators’ bipartisan coalition building, the researchers leveraged observational data about members’ sponsorship and cosponsorship patterns in the House and Senate; members’ ability to draw in a bipartisan coalition of supporters on bills they have sponsored; and efforts to join bipartisan coalitions on bills sponsored by other members. 

Legislative effectiveness is based on 15 indicators that collectively capture the proven ability of a legislator to advance her agenda items through the legislative process and into law. Indicators measure how many bills a member sponsors, how many received action in and beyond committee, how many passed the chamber, and how many became law. Greater weight is also given to bills with greater substantive significance.

To rule out other factors known to enhance legislators’ effectiveness, data on individuals holding committee chairs or having more seniority in the chamber were controlled for in the study.


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