Chapter 2: Encourage Civility and Bipartisanship in Congress
For the last decade, few things have ranked lower than Congress’ approval rating. Since Gallup began measuring it in the 1970s, the highest congressional approval rating was 84 percent, right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The lowest it has been was 9 percent in 2013, right after a prolonged government shutdown (Figure 2.1). But this constant fluctuation and generally dismal approval rating is often attributed to one thing: partisan bickering that undermines the ability of the institution to operate effectively for the American people. Partisanship is cited as the reason for gridlock, inaction, ugly campaigns, and vitriolic arguments seen everywhere from the House floor to social media.
Figure 2.1: Congressional Job Approval, Gallup Polling
Source: Gallup Polling
This perception of a “broken Congress”—and in many cases, reality—made civility and bipartisanship a top priority of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, in terms of both its recommendations and its own practice. Since its inception in January 2019, the Committee decided to operate differently than a standard committee on Capitol Hill. Not only did the Committee pass four recommendations to encourage bipartisanship and civility in Congress, but Committee Members worked daily to lead by example. In September 2019 the Committee held a hearing specifically dedicated to the topic, and a discussion of how to encourage civility and bipartisanship was part of nearly every hearing and member meeting.
Structurally, the Committee was evenly divided by party (six Republicans and six Democrats). Aside from the House Committee on Ethics, it was the only committee with an even partisan balance in the House during the 116th Congress. Instead of two separate staffs divided by party, the Committee established one bipartisan, unified staff. Hearing materials and committee news and updates were communicated through one bipartisan voice and social media account.
Figure 2.2: Screen grab from Twitter.
Decisions on hearings and committee recommendations were bipartisan, led in tandem by Chair Derek Kilmer and Vice Chair Tom Graves. Committee Members met regularly for bipartisan, closed-door meetings. The Committee established a Civility Working Group, led by Representatives Emanuel Cleaver, Susan Brooks, and Dan Newhouse. Ahead of recommendation votes, hearings, or Member-level briefings, the Committee Members’ staff were briefed together in a nonpartisan manner. These practices epitomize several of the reforms outlined in this chapter—and indicate that reforms at the committee, House, and party level can have a meaningful impact on decreasing partisanship and increasing civility in the Congress.
“But the goal in airing conflict shouldn't be simply to highlight our differences. The goal should be to establish clear positions, have meaningful discussions, test different compromises, and ultimately, to find a path forward. Congress actually does this a bit more than the American public is aware of. In fact, this Committee is a great example of how Members who represent different constituencies and have different views can actually engage in civil productive discussions and find compromise, find solutions.”
Chair Derek Kilmer, September 26, 2019
It is important to note that the Committee did not operate in a vacuum. The day before the bipartisanship and civility recommendations were passed by the Committee (December 19, 2019), the 116th Congress voted to impeach President Donald Trump along party lines. Despite an increasingly partisan environment, the Committee Members worked hard to pass meaningful reforms and to practice those reforms through our continue work. Every recommendation made at the committee level was unanimous and bipartisan. And every vote on the House floor—from the establishment and reauthorization of the Committee, to the recommendations ultimately passed in the Committee’s first major piece of legislation (H.Res. 756)—received overwhelming bipartisan support.
These recommendations, and the chamber-wide support for them, indicate that Congress is hungry for change, and capable of making it. Many Members crave bipartisanship and a functioning body of government to address the problems important to their constituents; to write better legislation; and to strengthen trust in the institution. This chapter outlines the Committee’s bipartisanship and civility recommendations, following an examination of historical trends and the congressional practices that informed them.
Our country’s two major political parties play an important role in how Congress operates. In the House, majority control of the chamber carries with it the power of the Speaker of the House and the House’s 20 standing committees. These advantages allow the party in power to set the agenda on the House floor and pass legislation with a simple majority, if it chooses to do so.
Likewise, conflict plays an important role in the legislative process. The Founders, to some degree, presumed that conflict would play a constructive role in our politics and that Congress should be a place where disagreements are publicly aired. As Dr. Jennifer Victor noted in a Committee hearing on September 26, 2019:
“As we are all concerned about partisanship… because we think of partisanship and parties as the same thing, when in reality, the political parties are the key institution that organizes our democracy. It organizes Congress. It organizes the elections. It organizes how we fund our elections.”
Dr. Jennifer Victor, September 26, 2019
While these institutional and ideological realities are nothing new for the House, the intense level of partisanship and polarization that now grip Congress are more recent phenomena. The roots of this increased partisan conflict in Congress is multi-faceted. The realignment of the “Solid South” led to more ideologically unified Republican and Democratic parties. Politics is often viewed as a “team sport,” stoking further division along social and demographic lines which have only continued to widen in the last half century. Within the chamber, control of Congress has become more competitive, discouraging incentives for bipartisanship. As Former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) noted in a hearing on May 1, 2019 featuring former Members of Congress:
Image 2.1: Former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen testifies about her experiences in Congress during the Select Committee’s former Member Day hearing.
“What is different now is that control of the House can change from one election to the other. Everyone worries about their votes and how they are going to be scored, what their colleagues are doing and what they are saying and what it means for the next election. Bipartisanship, sadly, gets lost in all of that.”
Former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, May 1, 2019
These trends have led both Republican and Democratic Members to become more united in how they vote, the bills they cosponsor, and their party’s communications—and the rift between the two parties has grown wider as a result. Figure 2.3 illustrates the two main congressional party’s ideological trends, measured by DW-Nominate scores, which are widely used to describe the political ideology of political actors, political parties, and political institution, using floor votes. The scores below capture individual Member’s House floor votes on an ideological scale over time. The increasing divergence between the two parties can be explained by the type of issues Congress chooses to address, and the cohesive vote patterns by Members of both congressional parties.
Note: Party averages are calculated by using the first dimension of DW-Nominate scores of every member of the party conference during that congressional session. The closer to one, the more conservative the vote; closer to negative one is a more liberal vote.
It’s important to recognize that as Congress veers towards more partisanship, the country is becoming more partisan, too. As Dr. Jennifer Victor noted in her testimony, “there is a very strong correlation between the level of polarization in the U.S. Congress” and societal factors like income inequality and racial demographics that encourage polarization among constituents. Furthermore, changes in technology, population shifts, and the growth in the executive branch have expanded the challenges Congress faces. Congress has adapted a new style of lawmaking to respond to these growing pressures from the electorate and party leadership.
Today, rather than pass individual pieces of legislation, leaders know it’s easier to package together legislation into “must-pass” omnibus bills. This has further entrenched the role of political parties in Congress. These large pieces of legislation are complex, and the level of expertise and negotiation practically requires party leaders to take charge. Thus, Congress has used the power of political parties to change how it operates and how legislation is passed.
Figure 2.4 depicts the number of bills enacted per Congress, along with the average number of pages per statute from the 80th Congress to the 115th Congress. While the number of individual bills enacted has steadily declined since the 1940s, the average number of pages per bill signed into law have largely increased. This is indicative of the increased use of omnibus legislation and large, legislative packages crafted and passed by party leaders.
Figure 2.4: Bills Enacted, 80th—115th Congress
Source: Vital Statistics on Congress, the Brookings Institution
The proclivity towards omnibus legislation and party leadership can also be seen in the decline of committee activity and legislation. As Figure 2.5 illustrates, although Congress is in session for a similar number of days each Congress, there has been a consistent decline in the number of subcommittee and committee meetings. Whether this schedule shift can be attributed to partisanship is unclear, but the byproduct is an increased reliance on party leadership to shape and pass legislation. Since the 1990s, the percentage of legislation that has bypassed the committee process has steadily risen—for example, in the 113th Congress (2013-2014), 40 percent of the major legislation that came to the floor of the House did not include a committee report.
Members rely on party leadership for access to, and information about, the provisions in legislation and how to talk about it with constituents. And this partisan separation is instilled from the moment newly-elected Members arrive for orientation. Members are not encouraged by party leadership to meet their peers and form genuine relationships across the aisle. In committees, each party has their own separate staff, meetings, and brings forward their own hearing witnesses. Over time, Members naturally become more insular. The American people often see interactions that are boiled down to viral soundbites, which parties can use for fundraising, social media, and media coverage.
It is important to note that leadership-centered lawmaking is successful. Although it is non-traditional, or what political scientist Barbara Sinclair called “unorthodox lawmaking,” significant legislation is still being passed, and most of it is passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. This is indicative of Members’ desire to pass meaningful legislation to solve problems for constituents. But the realities of the party-leadership process and the partisan arguments to appeal to partisan constituents has contaminated the public perception of Congress. The legislative process is akin to sausage making, and public-perception is informed by televised shouting matches, shortened policy arguments on social media, and party-driven policy messaging. So, while bipartisan lawmaking still occurs, it is no wonder, given the evidence available to constituents, that accusations of gridlock and partisan bickering are common. As Vice Chair Tom Graves noted in a February 5, 2020 hearing:
Image 2.2: Vice Chair Tom Graves offers remarks about civility in Congress.
“A recent survey found that 93 percent of Americans see incivility as a problem in our society. And, according to those, Congress and politicians are the ones to blame. So, it seems like we have a lot of work to do, a lot ahead and on our plate. But this challenge and this known information here, it presents an opportunity. It actually presents an opportunity for us to seek out, to identify, and ultimately fix the root of this problem.”
Vice Chair Tom Graves, February 5, 2020
Members are eager for change—not only in how they are perceived, but in the legislative process itself. Increased bipartisanship and civility at all levels, from the House floor to the smallest subcommittee, will increase the quality of legislation. Floor debates, committee hearings, and legislation can only improve if Members work together. As Committee Member, Rep. William Timmons said in a hearing on September 26, 2019, “Civility is the pathway to solving our big problems, and without it, we will never solve them. We will not resolve these challenges on Twitter, no matter how much people want to try.”
While decreased partisanship and polarization requires multi-faceted solutions inside and outside of Congress, the Committee focused on perhaps the simplest, yet most essential building block: encouraging civility and strengthening personal relationships in Congress. The Committee focused on establishing opportunities that would allow Members of Congress to better know one another and form the trust required to engage in bipartisan lawmaking. The Committee focused on physical spaces for the chamber at large, bipartisan retreats for new members and committees, and bipartisan opportunities for staff with the hope, and understanding, that personal relationships encourage public bipartisanship and civility. Rep. Susan Brooks summarized the challenge facing Congress in the September 26 hearing:
Image 2.3: Committee Members Reps. Susan Brooks, Emanuel Cleaver, Rob Woodall and Chair Derek Kilmer listen to witness testimony.
“What is needed is a process that creates an ongoing relationship, not just one to deal with an immediate crisis; one that builds trust among the various players, recognizing there are always alternatives and policy disputes, and allows key negotiators to sit down and talk long before decisions are made.”
Rep. Susan Brooks, September 26, 2019
The recommendations in this chapter were not only supported and recommended by policy experts but were practiced by the Committee. Chair Derek Kilmer said in the September 26, 2019 hearing, “Every Member of this Committee has demonstrated a desire and willingness to work on a bipartisan basis, and as a result, this Committee has been and will continue to be incredibly productive.” Committee work was done on a proactively bipartisan basis: from staff briefings to hearing decisions made conjointly by the Chair and Vice Chair. The byproduct was substantial discussions in committee hearings, and behind closed doors; bipartisan recommendations that were ultimately supported by a bipartisan majority of the chamber; and close relationships between Members.
The Committee, well aware of political realities, sought reforms that would slow the growing division between the political parties. While the legislation that is passed is often bipartisan, the process that the American people witness is bitter and divided. In the view of most experts, everything from how campaigns are financed to how congressional districts are drawn also exacerbate many of our problems. While the Committee did not find bipartisan agreement on recommendations in these spaces, these topics warrant further exploration.
But this Committee believed there were changes within the scope of its mandate to improve the institution. In order to instill trust in the institution, civility must be restored—in committee hearings, on the House floor, between the staff, and in congressional districts. The recommendations in this chapter encourage the rest of the chamber to consider simple—yet effective—changes that will facilitate relationships necessary to make Congress more civil, bipartisan, and ultimately better serve the American people.