Building bipartisan relationships in Congress

Sens. John McCain of Arizona and John Kerry of Massachusetts, who maintained a bipartisan friendship, chat in Washington DC in 1997. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

The importance of human connection has come into abrupt focus with the coronavirus pandemic’s stay-at-home orders over the last month. People are finding ways to overcome their physical isolation — singing together from their balconies, participating in video calls with extended family, and checking in on their neighbors. Members of Congress are no exception. Congress is fundamentally an institution powered by personal relationships.

Nurturing personal relationships between Republicans and Democrats has been a cornerstone of the Hewlett Foundation’s U.S. Democracy work since 2014. Congress cannot fulfill its Constitutional role of mediating among conflicting interests and solving problems in the public interest across political and policy disagreements unless individuals on Capitol Hill can talk to and reason with each other.

This fundamental faith in the importance of human relationships in the national legislature was recently assessed in an evaluation commissioned by the Hewlett Foundation. Consultant teams at ORS Impact and BLE Solutions analyzed quantitative data from grantees about participation in their bipartisan programming during the 115th Congress (2017-18). They also conducted more than 60 interviews for qualitative input.

The news media often depict Congress as hopelessly divided into two warring parties who barely know each other and rarely come together to pass substantive legislation. But the results of the evaluation suggest that there are more cross-party working relationships, even friendships, than headlines portray. Indeed, the coronavirus crisis has demonstrated that when the stakes are high for the country, Congress can still act very quickly across party lines on legislation of enormous importance.

The importance of relationships

The evaluation report, released in early 2020, attempts to answer questions about who participates in bipartisan programs offered by Hewlett grantees and why. It also looks at the impact of their participation on legislative effectiveness by individual staff members and by Congress collectively.

The most surprising finding was that more than 70% of Congressional offices participated in at least one bipartisan event hosted by a Hewlett Foundation grantee, and many showed up repeatedly. Every House and Senate Standing Committee was represented, as well as most Leadership offices.

The evaluation also found that the programs did indeed bring together people who otherwise wouldn’t spend time with each other. Members and staff repeatedly said that the primary reason they attended was to meet people from the other party, and the program succeeded in helping them do this. They also reported that there were few other venues which foster relationships across the aisle. Program content mattered to them, but meeting their peers mattered more.

Who were the most likely participants in terms of political identity? For the House, they were slightly more likely to be conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans. One explanation could be that these Members are more likely to represent “swing” districts where party registration is more evenly divided, and they must appeal to voters across a wider ideological spectrum. For the Senate, where rates of participation were lower, there was no correlation with party.

Looking more deeply, the data confirmed that at most 20% of participants were frequent attenders, and even fewer were active with more than one grantee’s programs.

What drove the Members and staff who were engaged repeatedly and with multiple programs? The evaluation’s interviews revealed a strong belief among participants that the programs changed their attitudes as well as educated them about issues. But the most frequent attenders are people who already had a strong commitment to bipartisanship. For either personal reasons or pragmatic ones, they understand such relationships are key to getting things done in Congress.

Committed to a more effective Congress

A question the Hewlett Foundation has found difficult to answer is whether building and reinforcing bipartisan relationships increases an individual Member’s effectiveness or enhances collective action in Congress. Interviewees told stories of cosponsoring bills, signing Dear Colleague letters, having joint floor colloquies, even passing legislation with the other party, but a comprehensive analysis of impact was beyond the scope of the report. The Healthy Congress Index, which tracks progress toward higher levels of productivity, did not show meaningful change in Congress during the 115th Congress.

The evaluation also underscored the headwinds working against bipartisanship such as: political polarization; intraparty divisions; the paradox of increased centralization of power in Congress and the dispersion of that power through social media venues; less Member time in Washington, DC; Member turnover; the 24/7 media cycle; and challenging relationships between Congress and Presidents Obama and Trump. What’s remarkable is that the frequent participants were undeterred by these obstacles, remaining committed to the necessity of reaching out to others.

As the world, the country, and Congress emerge into a post-pandemic era, they will rely more than ever on the quality of human ties to solve problems they have never before encountered. This evaluation provides a glimpse into where and how that work may have already begun.

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