Bipartisanship in Congress: Some progress, still a long way to go

To be bipartisan does not mean to be a centrist. When The Lugar Center and the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown first launched their Bipartisan Index last year, we noted then that “hyper-partisanship has frequently paralyzed congressional decision-making and led both Republicans and Democrats to fail the most basic tests of governance.”

The Bipartisan Index ranks all members of Congress based on how frequently they reach across the aisle when bills are introduced. It looks at the number of times a member co-sponsors a bill that was introduced by the other party, and how often a member introduces a bill that attracts co-sponsors from the other party.

The aim of the Index is to highlight members’ willingness to get results, regardless of party. We believe this should encourage members to work together and raise the level of civility in the two chambers, and hope that it will help ease partisan gridlock in Washington.

At the time of our first Index, we noted that the previous two Congresses had been the most partisan of the past 20 years covered by the Index. The past year has seen mixed signs of progress.

Congress’s productivity improved a bit in 2015, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center. It passed 87 “substantive” bills by Pew’s count, compared to 61 and 63 in first year of each of the previous two Congresses. But that’s still below all the Congressional first-sessions, save one, from 1997 to 2007. 

And we have been pleased that a number of office holders who scored well in our original ranking of the 2013-14 Congress, or in the lifetime Senate scores we released last December, have touted their record, indicating that bipartisanship still matters.

But there have been distressing signs as well. Most notable, of course, is the harsh rhetoric and vacuous “policy proposals” offered in the presidential primary campaigns that have diminished norms governing political civility and transparency. The death of Justice Scalia has provided further revelation concerning the partisan dysfunction of our government, as Senate plans to block any consideration of President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee virtually guarantee a year-long Court vacancy.

We have just released new Bipartisan Index rankings for 2015, and they show that Congress is making some progress but still has a long way to go. In the Senate, 38 lawmakers got a positive score last year, up from the 36 Senators in 2013-14.  In the House, 137 members received positive bipartisan rankings for the first half of the current Congress, four fewer than in the previous Congress.

But we see some encouraging signs here.  Because scores will improve as the total number of bipartisan bills accumulates during 2016, we expect that by the end of this year, the 114th Congress will have improved its bipartisan score over the 113th.  Still, it is likely to remain below the 20-year average.

In the House, New York Republicans Chris Gibson and Peter King once again ranked in the top two. Susan CollinsSusan CollinsRepublican opposition to raising the minimum wage Is crumbling 5 takeaways from the Indiana Senate debate GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election MORE, the Maine Republican, repeated as the most bipartisan senator.

Republicans in the House dominated both ends of the bipartisan scale: they accounted for 16 of the 25 highest-ranking House members, while of the lowest 25, 20 were Republicans. The Senate showed a different pattern: 15 of the top 25 scorers were Republicans, but 18 of the 25 lowest-ranked senators were Democrats.

We also looked at the performance of 2015’s first-year members to see if the new generation might have come to Washington with more openness to working across the aisle.  In general, however, the scores showed that freshmen in the House and Senate performed about the same as the chambers overall. One notable finding was that of the thirteen new senators in 2015, none was ranked among the top dozen in the Index, but three were ranked in the bottom twelve: Republicans Tom CottonTom CottonCotton not ruling out 2020 White House bid GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election GOP chairman demands number of immigrants granted accidental citizenship MORE of Arkansas, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and David Perdue of Georgia.

The Bipartisan Index shows that strong conservatives and strong progressives can score well when they search for common ground. Congress — and the country — are stronger when both sides make the effort to forge legislation that produces results for the American people. Most politicians say they believe in that principle, but more of them have to act on it.

Lugar served in the Senate from 1977 to 2013. He is the president of The Lugar Center, which addresses critical issues including global food security, foreign aid effectiveness, WMD nonproliferation and bipartisan governance. Montgomery is dean of the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University.