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The State of Bipartisanship

IPR asks Laurel Harbridge-Yong about congressional conflict around current legislation, the debt ceiling—and what it all means for midterms and democracy

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The current partisan political climate where people are so focused on their own side winning and seeing the win for the other side as a disaster for the country—that it makes it very hard to work with the other side when that's the perspective.”

Laurel Harbridge-Yong
IPR political scientist

Capitol Building

For over a decade, Americans’ approval of the way Congress handles its job has been well below 50%. Recent congressional sparring over previously bipartisan government activities like raising the debt ceiling seem to have exposed a new level of animosity between Republicans and Democrats. But is this actually the case—and if so, what does this heightened state of partisanship mean for Americans? 

To better understand what’s at stake, IPR spoke with political scientist Laurel Harbridge-Yong, an expert on partisan conflict and cooperation. She shares what her research says about the current conflict in Congress, the 2022 midterm elections, and the long-term impact of congressional polarization on democracy.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Research finds that there has been stark polarization in Congress in the last several decades. But your book Is Bipartisanship Dead? shows more bipartisan behavior took place in Congress between 1973 and 2004 if you look beyond voting records. Is this still true in 2021?

When we think about what's been happening in contemporary politics, I think there certainly is some decline in bipartisanship, even on these earlier stage measures, like co-sponsorship [of legislation]. In the conclusion of my book, I updated some of the analysis through the early Obama administration, and we did start to see some declines through the later Bush administration, the Obama administration, and this likely continued during the Trump era. Issues that might not have otherwise been politicized became politicized—COVID and others. We had the initial bipartisan response with the CARES Act, but now you have greater partisanship on things.

But I still would argue—and suggest that the data show—that a lot of the issues that are not these high-profile agenda items of the parties are still places where there is bipartisan agreement. The vast majority of what Congress does is not the kind of big-ticket items like the Democrats' social spending bill.

How have you seen bipartisanship play out around the infrastructure legislation?

In many respects, the negotiations that we observed in the Senate to build a bipartisan coalition, they're very much like we would expect. We know that there are pivotal actors who need to be appeased in order to get their support to get enough votes to overcome the filibuster.

What we saw is the Senate taking an issue that, in many respects, is kind of multidimensional, but had these different components of both traditional infrastructure as well as broader human capital sorts of infrastructure. And some of those things were pared back to make it a bit more of a traditional infrastructure bill, changing the costs as well. So those policy changes—those concessions from the Democratic majority towards the Republican minority—brought on greater bipartisan support.

What do you foresee happening in Congress with the debt ceiling over the next couple of months?

This is a tough one. Both parties try to use the debt ceiling when they're in the minority to force the hand of the majority party. They seem to deny the fact that the debt ceiling reflects past spending that they were a part of supporting—whether it was for the CARES Act, the Trump tax cut, or whatnot. That all contributed to the deficit as well, and it's easy to play politics around it. Today's highly partisan environment makes that more likely than it was in the past. That being said, there's a real risk that legislators in the minority party would face some blame if there was a catastrophic default.

In terms of what might happen, I suspect that there will either be some policy concessions towards the Republicans to get their support on a debt ceiling bill. Or, alternatively, that [Senators] Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who otherwise are not supportive of getting rid of the filibuster, might extend the class of votes that cannot be filibustered to include the debt ceiling, and then tackle it just by a simple majority.

What does your research say about why elected officials continue to engage in highly partisan ways even if they know that it damages public opinion of Congress and that bipartisanship is more effective at passing legislation?

On the one hand, when you think about legislators’ policy incentives, my research shows that engaging in bipartisanship is more likely to lead them to develop a record of legislative success. And then collectively, for the majority party as a whole, engaging in bipartisanship is more likely to produce a record of success.

But on the other hand, when you think about their electoral goals—here, the findings are a little bit more mixed. On the whole, the public values compromise. But there's perhaps somewhat less support for compromise among primary voters. And even more important is that my recent book, Rejecting Compromise: Legislators’ Fear of Primary Voters, shows that legislators believe that primary voters will punish them for compromising. Whether or not that's accurate probably depends on the issue. It gives them a reason to fight—even when there are a lot of other incentives for them to get along and find some agreement.

What are your predictions about congressional leaders’ ability to work together a year out from the 2022 midterm elections? 

In terms of the prospects for this next year ahead, I think there are two competing factors at work. On the one hand, as we approach the election season, the incentives to differentiate the two sides are going to become even more pronounced. On the other hand, though, the Democratic Party, as the current majority and in unified control of government, has greater incentives to produce a record of success. They want to act while they have the chance as the majority to put in places policies but also want to show voters that they should be rewarded with another term as the majority party.

And we may actually see that the Democratic leadership becomes more willing to make some concessions on policy to make sure things get done. But all that goes back to the same caveat that we started with, which is that both President Biden and [Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi and [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer—all the Democratic leaders—are really in a tough place, given the internal fights within the Democratic Party.

Are there costs and benefits to working across the aisle when it comes to reelection?

It very much does differ for different members of Congress. For members of Congress who come from moderate swing districts, they want to develop a record of bipartisanship. Joe Manchin, I think, wants to find places where he can figure out deals with the Republican Party that would help him electorally in his district. And he's more concerned about his general election defeat than he is about a primary election defeat.

If you look at the kind of members from the most progressive wing of the party on the Democratic side and the most conservative wing of the party on the Republican side, they may be more concerned about appealing to their primary electorate than the general electorate. They don't have those same incentives. And even for some members who are in the more moderate half of their party, some of them may be worried about a primary election threat—in the House on the Democratic side, most recently, the progressive wing of the party such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others. They're frustrated and angry by moderate members and threatening primary challenges against them.

On the Republican side, you have what's not so much an ideological divergence, but a pro-Trump divergence—potential primary challengers against Lisa Murkowski in the Senate and against Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, and others in the House who have not been sufficiently loyal to President Trump in the eyes of some Republicans. What positions do they need to take to win a primary election if that comes about?

There's little reason to think that working across the aisle and playing nicely with the other side is going be helpful in either of those ideological contests or in these pro-Trump versus anti-Trump contests.

What are some of the long-term implications of the lack of bipartisanship on U.S. democracy as a whole?

In terms of the bigger picture—the current partisan political climate where people are so focused on their own side winning and seeing the win for the other side as a disaster for the country—that it makes it very hard to work with the other side when that's the perspective. That's true both for our legislators as well as for the American public.

And I think, unfortunately, that is where politics is at right now. We see it among our elected officials, particularly around a lot of questions about election integrity, with many Republicans willing to support Trump's claims of fraud—despite widespread evidence to the contrary. If you don't believe the other side is there fairly, why should you give their views a fair hearing? If you think they're trying to cheat, why do you work with them?

Likewise, on the Democratic side, if you see the opposing party as unwilling to accept the outcomes of elections and trying to change election laws at the state level to disenfranchise people, politics becomes about a lot more than just liberal/conservative divides on policy—and where you can find agreement and where you can't find agreement. It's certainly not as simple as picking two different preferences on how much money you want to spend on something and splitting the difference to meet in the middle. I think that's really where the problems come in terms of the ability to work together. It's seeing the other side as the enemy and not just a set of policy differences.

Laurel Harbridge-Yong is associate professor of political science and an IPR fellow.

 Photo credit: Unsplash

Published: October 27, 2021.