Political wrangling in Washington is as old as the republic itself, and partisan battles over ideas and power will surely be with us long into the future. But the current era of hyperpartisanship has frequently paralyzed congressional decisionmaking and led both Republicans and Democrats to fail the most basic tests of governance.
This failure has had real consequences for real people. When a stymied Congress couldn’t agree on a strategy for deficit reduction, it proposed a draconian sequester, across-the-board budget cuts so illogical and unwise lawmakers thought it would force them to act. Yet congressional dysfunction prevailed and the once unthinkable cuts were implemented in early 2013.
Later that year, the same unhealthy dynamic forced the government to shut down for two weeks. These actions slowed the struggling economic recovery and hurt the jobs and incomes of Americans across the country.
Unrelenting partisanship has also led to a routine breakdown of normal spending and budget procedures, to some of the least productive Congresses in modern history, and even to the loss of traditional bipartisan cooperation on foreign policy.
If we are to break out of this straitjacket so our representatives can do what they were elected to do, namely lead and govern, we must end the destructive culture that has emerged on Capitol Hill.
That’s why the Lugar Center and Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy are launching the Bipartisan Index, a ranking of all senators and representatives according to their sponsorship and cosponsorship of bills. The index measures how often a member of Congress introduces bills that succeed in attracting cosponsors from members of the other party, and how often they, in turn, cosponsor a bill introduced from across the aisle.
By shining a bright light on members’ bipartisan activity — or lack thereof — we hope to encourage them to work together when writing or co-sponsoring legislation, and to raise the level of cooperation and civility.
To be bipartisan does not mean to be a centrist or to seek compromise for its own sake. We are not asking members to alter or deny their political principles. Some of the legislators who rank high on the index are Democrats and Republicans firmly on the left and right wings of their respective parties.
The index’s data confirm what politicians themselves have been saying — Congress has experienced a disturbing culture shift toward more partisanship and less interaction between the parties. For example, the past two Congresses have been the most partisan of the past 20 years, according to the index.
Yet the index also upends some conventional wisdom: the Congress that impeached President Bill Clinton was more bipartisan than any other in the index. And while the current House GOP majority is often vexed by no-compromise Tea Partiers, seven of the top 10 most bipartisan House members are Republicans.
Unlike the myriad rankings produced by special-interest groups, the index reflects no ideological agenda. Other gauges of Congress seek to place members on the liberal-conservative spectrum by how they vote. The Bipartisan Index, by focusing on the bills members introduce and cosponsor, aims to emphasize members’ proclivity to build coalitions in order to get results, regardless of the issue or party affiliation.
Too often these days, bills are being written not to maximize their chances of passage, but merely to score talking points.
The index was conceived on the principle that if Congress is to govern effectively, interaction between the parties must start at the beginning of the legislative process, when bills are developed, written and analyzed though committee hearings. It is far easier to make responsible compromises during the writing of legislation than at the 11th hour, following heated debate on a bill championed by a single party.
The parties will not always be able to resolve differences on issues, but members should be recognized for exploring consensus solutions.
The current dysfunction and extreme partisanship has left Congress’ approval rating hovering near historic lows — “less popular than cockroaches and traffic jams,” as one polling firm put it. Yet, so far, its members have faced few incentives to change — after all, nearly every incumbent was re-elected last fall. If the publication of this index encourages just a few to broaden their approach to lawmaking, that would be an important step toward restoring Congress to health.
Richard G. Lugar is a former Republican senator from Indiana and president of the Lugar Center. Edward Montgomery is dean of the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. They wrote this article for CQ Roll Call.