There is a long list of reasons why congressional approval has fallen to 15% this month (not too far from the 9% in November of 2013, which is the lowest ever recorded by Gallup). Towards the top of that list is that Americans do not see policymakers working together – a trend clearly highlighted in a recent Reuters poll that found two-thirds of those polled believe partisanship is impacting progress in Congress. Some would point to the fact that only 27 bills were signed into law in 2023, which is historically low when you consider that over the same period in the last four Congresses an average of 105 bills were signed into law. But simply looking at the partisan fighting and the number of bills signed into law does not tell the full story. Bipartisanship still exists – it is just uglier, angrier, louder, and only seems to emerge at the last minute just before Congress would be facing catastrophic results.
In the last year, Republicans and Democrats have come together to pass three continuing resolutions, each time avoiding a government shutdown. They, too, came together to pass a temporary suspension of the debt ceiling, preventing the United States from defaulting on their debt. Without this bipartisanship, our federal government and our economy could have taken a significant hit. Republicans and Democrats ruthlessly fought against each other on these issues, but when it counted, bipartisanship prevailed. No pictures of party leaders shaking hands, finalizing a deal over dinner together, or even praising each other upon passage like we may have seen in decades past, but the result was the same.
While still early in 2024, some of that “new bipartisanship” from 2023 seems to have carried over. Congress has already avoided another shutdown by voting on yet another continuing resolution. The Republican Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee just released a $78 billion tax package that has already passed through the House Ways and Means Committee. Who would have thought any of this would be possible by watching the vitriolic rhetoric that has been a constant presence over the last several years between the two parties?
We may just need to accept that the more traditional form of bipartisanship is gone (at least for now) and the uglier, angrier, and louder version is here for the time being, which we will rely on heavily with such a robust “must-pass” policy agenda in the coming months – FY 2024 Appropriations, FAA Reauthorization, Farm Bill, National Defense Authorization Act, etc. And while it may be frustrating that bipartisanship seemingly emerges only when consequential deadlines are about the pass, there is a lot of bipartisanship behind the scenes on more forward-looking legislative and funding efforts (the tax bill being one big example).
So, the important question is how do stakeholders focused on specific policy priorities navigate this “new bipartisanship” and take advantage of it when possible:
Congress Can Walk and Chew Gum at the Same Time: One unique norm within Congress is that historic partisanship and pockets of bipartisanship can happen at the same time. Find those pockets and leverage them for priority issues. It may be a committee working well together, a bill well-positioned to move on the floor, or even an oversight opportunity that brings both parties together. Those pockets exist, but rarely on the cover of the morning paper.
Congress Has Communicators and Legislators…Align with the Legislators: Every policymaker is unique, but most could be divided into one of two camps – those who use the power of their voice to have impact and those who use the power of their policy acumen to have impact. If you have a policy priority, work with those who have a strong record of navigating the complexities of the legislative process and actually getting bills across the finish line. There is an important role for those who can elevate issues through their own platforms, but getting legislation to the President’s desk generally falls on the shoulders of the legislators.
Understand What Trends Drive Partisanship and Avoid Those Playing Fields: Current partisanship will be studied and dissected by political scientists for decades. One thing they will find (and already have) is that partisanship fosters more press coverage, more fundraising, and more connectivity to base voters. All of this may be painful to understand, but it is what it is. If you are serious about advancing policy in today’s bizarre landscape, the further your issue should be from the headlines, political fundraising efforts, and the campaign trails. Once an issue stretches into those areas, your policy issue is officially going nowhere.
Reach Both Sides of the Aisle: Working with Republicans and Democrats seems obvious, but it is not easy (especially in an election year). Nothing will become law in 2024 without both parties supporting it. Those who choose to take a one-party approach in the hope that others will join later will strongly regret their strategy. Everything moving has leaders from both parties, and that is not expected to change in the near-term. One important tip…the policymakers with no political risk are those who are not running for re-election (of which there are many) and they often provide opportunities for bipartisan efforts.
The “new bipartisanship” has been painful to watch, especially for those of us who spent much of our careers on Capitol Hill. Bipartisanship is now a political risk to both parties, which is a dangerous trend. But do not confuse this uglier, angrier, and louder form of bipartisanship with partisanship. Also, do not mistake dysfunction (i.e., 18 separate votes for Speaker) with partisanship. The new bipartisanship may be tough to watch, but it has produced results when needed most and we will be relying on it for a while. Without it, we may still be trying to dig out of a government shutdown or in the midst of a financial meltdown. For now, it is all we have, so we should embrace it.