by: Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research
In less than three weeks, Spring will be upon us and as Alfred Lord Tennyson reminded us, “In the Spring, a young man’s fancy turns to bipartisanship.” Okay, maybe Tennyson did not say exactly that, but it is where this not-so-young man’s mind has turned as the chill of Winter gives way to the warmth of Spring, and based on a very brief survey of leaders, there is reason for hope that bipartisanship might come to pass.
A few weeks ago, SLLF hosted a Zoom program with Mark Gerzon, author of The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide where we heard examples of bipartisan legislation passing in state legislatures across the nation. In light of these encouraging stories, we decided to survey all state legislative leaders and see if we could find more examples of bipartisan activities.
Our survey revealed that despite what you read on social media and in the newspapers, see on television or hear on podcasts and talk radio, bipartisanship is not dead. According to the thirty responses received from current (25) and recent former (5) leaders in twenty-two states, the walls between the two parties do come down sometimes and many significant pieces of legislation are passed with bipartisan support. While almost two-thirds of the respondents (63%) acknowledged that bipartisanship is harder now than it was a decade ago, a third said it had not changed and one leader actually said bipartisanship was easier now than in the past.
It seems that legislative leaders are trying – or at least say they are trying – to encourage bipartisanship in their chambers. Nearly all of those who completed the survey indicated they sought bipartisan support on significant legislation. More than half indicated they try to encourage their members to co-sponsor legislation with members of the other party and almost two-thirds coordinate the floor agenda with members of the other party. Two-thirds of the leaders of the majority party indicate they seek to include input from the other party on key legislation. A few leaders in the majority volunteered other efforts to encourage bipartisanship including regular formal and informal meetings with leaders and rank-and-file members of the minority party.
In terms of bipartisan actions within the legislature, the most common activity is the sponsorship of legislation, with just over three-fourths of the respondents indicating that “Members of both parties often co-sponsor legislation.” In almost seventy percent of the chambers responding, committee membership reflects the partisan distribution of the chamber and just in just under sixty percent, the leaders of both parties meet on a regular basis. It is less common for legislators of different parties to socialize (44%), bipartisan caucuses to meet (41%), seat by something other than party on the floor (31%) or allow members of the minority party to chair standing committees (17%).
Perhaps the most encouraging findings revolved around the prevalence and wide range of issues identified as bipartisan in the states. Ninety percent of the respondents noted specific examples of important legislation passing their chamber with support from both parties including legislation in such significant areas as Covid-19 relief, economic development and opportunity, health care, social justice, health care and education.
Regarding economic development and opportunity, bipartisan bills included expanding paid family leave, creating greater opportunities for MBWEs and offering tax relief for businesses and individuals. On the criminal, environmental and social justice front, bipartisan legislation included criminal justice reform, reproductive rights, environmental regulations, social services, the Equal Rights Amendment and workplace harassment. In health care, the two parties came together to expand Medicare, regulate insurers and place some limitations on pharmaceutical companies. Finally, in the field of education, the parties agreed on teacher raises, spending on school construction and school governance reform.
So, there you have it! While it does not make the front page, trend or get a bunch of clicks or hits, bipartisanship is happening in state capitols from Sacramento to Tallahassee. While many issues across the nation are marked by partisan and ideological divides, these results suggest that leaders and members are making an effort to bridge the partisan divide where they can and a wide range of significant legislation is passing with Republican and Democratic votes.
And that’s why, during the Spring of 2021, this not-so-young man’s thoughts turn to bipartisanship!
* Thanks to David Webb, SLLF Intern, for helping to organize the survey results into something I could manage and analyze.