Could Caucuses Help Rebuild Bipartisanship on Capitol Hill?


“With the election sweep, there’s plenty of talk among Republicans about now being able to get things done. But there is also rising concern among observers of Congress that lawmakers are interacting less and less across the aisle. That has been a growing problem for many years, with members literally not knowing each other and distrust becoming deeper. In most aspects of public life, a basic failure to communicate invariably leads to bad outcomes and is corrosive to a functioning democracy.

“Even the currently ascendant Republicans have cause for concern about the erosion of contact and trust. First, getting much of their agenda through the Senate will require 60 votes, which will be difficult to do if there’s essentially a border wall between the two parties (not to mention only 52 Republicans in the Senate). Even legislative successes can be subject to continuous obstruction and repeal efforts in sensitive areas, such as health care, if the majority party fails to attract a reasonable number of minority votes. President Obama learned this lesson with the passage of the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare), which triggered implacable opposition from Republicans. That experience should be a lesson now, causing Republicans to hesitate in seeking to ram through “repeal and replace” solely with their own votes.

“Of course, it would be naïve to expect Republican and Democratic leaders to embrace before TV cameras anytime soon. On the other hand, political scientist Frances Lee observes there is actually more bipartisanship in Congress than most people realize (measured by minority support for bills that become law), particularly when party leaders take a lead. Corresponding research from political scientists Craig Volden and Alan Wiseman recently found that members of Congress (even those with strong ideological leanings) who pursue bipartisan strategies are more effective legislators than those who have a more partisan voting record. Past scholarship has found that establishing reputation for such effectiveness increases the probability of reelection for incumbents.

“But how is it possible to achieve such bipartisan successes when Congress is so ideologically partisan? The more traditional view of deal making….”