By: Thom Little, Ph.D.
There is something that state legislative leaders can learn from the United States Senate. That is a statement that I did not expect to be making given the partisan divide that defines today’s Senate. However, the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act in June 2022, the first significant public safety legislation in almost three decades, gives evidence that even a divided chamber can do good work. So, how did this evenly divided legislative body pass Senate Bill 2938? A recent conversation with Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) at SLLF’s “Public Safety: Are We Missing the Mark?” program offers some answers to that question. It also offers some lessons for state legislators who want to pass significant legislation in their chambers.
Before looking at those lessons, let’s take a brief look at how the legislation made it to President Biden’s desk. Following mass shootings in Buffalo, New York and Uvalde, Texas, polling data indicated that an outraged public wanted action. Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) approached the Republican Senate leaders to discuss the possibility of a bipartisan bill and they directed her to speak with Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) and Senator Tillis. Following that conversation, Sen. Sinema was asked by Senator Murphy to join their group and they began meeting the next day. Gradually, the group expanded to twenty (10 Democrats and 10 Republicans) and they agreed to a framework two weeks later. On June 21, Murphy introduced the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act as an amendment to S. 2938, an unrelated bill that had already passed committee and had been pending in the Senate. The amendment passed 64-35 on June 21 and the bill passed two days later 65 – 35. Fifteen Republicans joined the 50 Democrats to pass the bill. The next day, the amended S. 2938 passed the House on a bipartisan vote (14 Republicans joining 220 Democrats). Now, let’s get to the lessons!
Timing Matters. While many members of the Senate, especially Democrats, have talked about gun control and public safety legislation for years, it took back-to-back shootings in Buffalo, New York (May 15) and Uvalde, Texas (May 24) to spur action. Following the Texas murders, Sen. Murphy, who once represented Sandy Hook, CT in the House, took to the floor to passionately implore his colleagues to act. The next day, the four senators noted above met for the first time.
Relationships Matter. In order to reach a compromise, legislators must trust each other – an ability that seems sorely lacking in today’s politics. For legislators to trust each other, they need to know each other as more than just Democrats and Republicans or liberals and conservatives. According to Senator Tillis, one of the primary reasons that he could work so effectively across the aisle with Sen. Murphy was the bond they formed just weeks before as members of the Senate NATO Observer Group traveling to the Baltic states in Eastern Europe. They got to know and like each other – building the path to compromise.
Start on Common Ground. With the parties so divided, most conversations between party members focus on the issues that divide them and such conversations inevitably lead to conflict rather than compromise. Effective negotiations generally begin with the two sides seeking areas of agreement. In this case, Sen. Murphy noted that both sides were committed to addressing the violence gripping the nation and crafting a bill that would include a broad range of solutions.
Acknowledge Differences. Just as important as finding common ground, it is also critical that both sides acknowledged areas of profound difference, areas where compromise is unlikely, if not impossible. According to Sen. Murphy, as much as he and many of his Democratic colleagues wanted to restrict access to certain weapons, he realized that such a proposal would probably derail the negotiations. Likewise, Sen. Tillis noted that while he had significant concerns about due process and closing “the boyfriend loophole,” he acknowledged that not including that proposal would likely cause a significant number of Democrats to walk away.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate! It is impossible to come to a compromise if you stop talking. During the two weeks that the senators were trying to reach a compromise that would get the votes necessary to overcome a filibuster, the four key negotiators were in constant contact, via email, phone or in person. According to Sen. Tillis, during that time, he was in contact with Senators Murphy, Sinema and Cornyn daily, often many times a day, offering ideas and trying to determine if particular ideas would garner enough support to pass.
Know Where the Finish Line Is. I often remind legislative leaders that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” If your objective is to get a perfect bill, you will be waiting a long time. A bill that is perfect for you will include fatal flaws for someone else. No bill can do everything and no bill of consequence is likely to please everyone. You just need a bill that will get you the number of votes you need for it to pass, whether that is a simple majority or a supermajority. In the case of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, 60 votes were necessary to break the filibuster so that was the objective. All Democrats plus the ten Republicans in the expanded work group were necessary to cross the finish line and all negotiations were aimed at hitting that mark.
That is how the 2022 United States Senate passed the most significant public safety legislation in almost three decades and perhaps how you can work toward significant legislation in your states.