At a time when evidence of a deep divide shows up every day on social media and in the news, a growing number of national organizations are dedicated to promoting bipartisanship and civility. They offer legislators fresh ideas about working across the aisle; they say it takes a steady effort to build and strengthen bipartisan work. They say bipartisanship makes legislation more valuable and more likely to pass, and it can build trust among the public. NCSL’s podcast on bipartisanship, Across the Aisle, looks at the work lawmakers are doing on civility and bipartisanship. “Civility is not just good manners, it's really being able to get something done,” says Beth Harwell, the former Republican Speaker of the Tennessee house and now with the National Institute for Civil Discourse. “And if I hear anything from the public right now, it's that they're hungering and thirsting for our elected officials to work out solutions.” Also, we’ll look at what research shows about how bipartisanship helps bills pass, even for lawmakers in the majority who don’t seem to need it.
National Conference of State Legislators Center for Legislative Strengthening
National Institute for Civil Discourse Next Generation Program
Millennial Action Project
By Kelley Griffin
Ask 97 year old Arleyn Reichert of Montana for a sure-fire way to promote bipartisanship and she’ll cite a personal experience that led her to conclude Legislators should not sit separated by party across the proverbial aisle.
Reichert was one of the state’s 100 delegates elected to rewrite the constitution in 1972, and she is oldest of 10 delegates still living. She says she and her colleagues decided to sit in alphabetical order.
“When we gathered in Helena for our orientation, the first thing we decided is we were going to forget partisan politics. And that was a very important factor,” Reichert says. “By the time the constitution was written, we didn't even know the political party affiliations of our seatmates.”
Not only did the collection of Montanans from all walks of life come to unanimous agreement on the constitution - six days ahead of schedule - Reichert says they became life-long friends.
Having Republicans and Democrats sit in alternating seats, or sit alphabetically, are just a couple of the many ways states have tried to foster bipartisanship among lawmakers.
At a time when evidence of a deep divide shows up every day on social media and in the news, a growing number of national organizations are dedicated to promoting bipartisanship and civility. They offer legislators fresh ideas about working across the aisle; they say it takes a steady effort to build and strengthen bipartisan work. They say that, in turn, improves bills chance of passage and can build trust among the public.
Laurel Harbridge Yong is an associate professor in political science at Northwestern University and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research. She’s studied bipartisanship for years at the federal and state level.
“What we find is that there's a strong positive relationship between legislators’ records of bringing in bipartisan co-sponsors on their legislation and having legislative success. So their bills moving further in the legislative process and eventually becoming a law,” Harbridge Yong says.
And this is true even when a party has a big enough majority it wouldn’t seem that bipartisanship matters.
“We find that bipartisanship is valuable for both majority and minority members. And we know on average of course majority party members are much more effective, but the kind of benefit that they get from bipartisanship is similar,” she says.
Bipartisanship Gets a Boost
In the past decade or so, national organizations have formed to develop best practices and train state legislators.
For the National Institute for Civil Discourse, it was a violent incident that prompted it’s formation. In 2011 a gunman targeted Arizona Representative Gabby Giffords, gravely injuring her and killing six in Tuscon. Prior to the shooting, Giffords had been in discussions with the University of Arizona about promoting civil discourse, and after the shooting, the non-partisan Institute was established. Giffords serves on the board.
The institute has a program called Next Generation, managed by Beth Harwell. She’s the former Republican Speaker of the Tennessee house who took over just as her party won back control from the Democrats. She says her work has always had a theme:
“Compromise is not a dirty word, and working with each other is actually a goal we should all strive for.”
Before she ever worked for Next Generation, she made a point as speaker of bringing the civility workshop to the Tennessee House.
“I found a lot of the skills that I learned in this program were very beneficial in helping members understand the role of a minority party, the importance of listening to their ideas and taking the thoughts that they gave and allowing them to be applied to the policy we were forming,” Harwell says. Another key point from the training was “the concept from the majority party to treat others what way we would like to be treated.”
The Next Gen program goes to a state only when invited by the leadership, to ensure there’s strong support. The workshops start with getting to know each other beyond party and beyond the work in the capitol.
“One of the first things we do is really develop an understanding of each other. And I know that may sound a little touchy feely at first but it really isn’t,” Harwell says. “Every participant goes through a personal journey of what shaped your beliefs. It’s surprising how much people have never really taken the time to get to know each other, even though they serve in a legislative body. When you understand someone else experiences, you’re more willing to treat them with respect.”
Leadership of the Delaware House of Representatives decided to hold the civility workshop to open this year’s session. Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst says they wanted to welcome new members and bounce back from the disconnect of the COVID years when they worked together mostly on Zoom calls. While Democrats are in the majority, Longhurst says the state has a history of the parties working together. But they wanted to beef that up.
Longhurst says now the body is planning a dinner together and activities like volleyball or maybe even ziplining. She says the workshop helped in ways constituents will be able to observe.
“I would say that you won’t see the outbursts on social media because of frustration. What we did discuss in our conference civility training was social media and attacking people, the negatively, it just breeds more negativity,” Longhurst says. “I think so far this year you haven’t seen that negativity on social media because people are respecting each other more.”
Natalie Wood, director of the Center for Legislative Strengthening at NCSL, notes that every state has rules and traditions aimed at supporting free and fair debate.
“They allow the majority to get their way, but they also allow the minority to get their say,” Wood says.
For example, states have different means to ensure the minority party has a role in committees, and to give minority party bills a chance. Some states make sure every bill gets a committee hearing. New Hampshire goes even further - it guarantees that every bill will get a vote in the House. And Texas has a decades-long tradition of giving some committee chairmanships to the minority party. All legislatures have an array of rules about how to address each other formally in the chamber, and rules against name-calling and inappropriate language.
“Another reason it’s of importance to understand the rules and to follow the rules is that they can also ensure decorum and civility,” Wood says. “And that really goes hand in hand bipartisanship.”
Another national group focused on bipartisanship is targeting young lawmakers. The Millennial Action Project “is the largest nonpartisan organization for Millennial and Gen Z lawmakers,” says Layla Zaiden, the president and CEO.
“We exist to help bridge the partisan divide and improve American democracy,” she says.
Tall order, but Zaiden thinks up-and-coming lawmakers can do it.
“MAP was really born out of a sense of possibility that the rising generation could do things differently. And in fact, we had seen that outside of political institutions that young people really were stepping up to start businesses or volunteer, really think outside the box and, and how to solve problems. We thought, well, what if we could create an organization that channels that energy once they start running and winning elected office?” she says.
To that end, MAP helps young state legislators - generally under 45 - form “Future Caucuses” with bipartisan leadership to explore how to work together to get things done. So far there are Future Caucuses in more than 30 states. They are focused on issues like affordable housing, college tuition rates, voting reforms and access to health care.
Zaiden notes that Gen Z, people born between 1997 and 2013, increased their numbers in state legislatures by 170 percent in the last election. And “independent” is the fastest growing party affiliation. She thinks this generation isn’t buying into hard-line party politics.
“It's not really how young people are operating anymore. You know, sometimes I make the analogy of like, Gen Z is not buying cable packages, they're getting maybe Netflix or they're getting some other streaming service, but we're not bundling the whole package anymore and we're looking at our politics in a really similar way,” Zaiden says. “ And that opens up, I think, a lot of opportunity to have these really productive conversations inside the legislature where you can really pick and choose the ideas in ways that feel relevant and resonant to your community”
Zaiden says these caucuses are certainly about issues, and also about a good bit of socializing.
Like in Kansas, where the Future Caucus got together for one of its early meetings to try axe throwing.
The humor isn’t lost on Representative Tory Marie Blew, the Republican co-chair of the Kansas Future Caucus. It was a real ice-breaker.
Blew says she is sold on events like that to set the stage for more serious work. When she became co-chair of the caucus with Democrat Rui Xu, they surveyed members to zero in on issues where they had a common interest, and weed out those where they decidedly did not.
“We were able to say like, for instance, abortion, gun rights, so forth, those are very hot heavy topics that we're not going to find common ground,” Blew says. “But access to health care. We agree on access to health care.”
The Future Caucus won’t endorse anything unless the reach bipartisan, two-thirds support for the idea, she says.
For example, they supported a bill to promote housing ownership and helped ensure its passage, earning praise from the Governor. This session they are working on measures to support entrepreneurs. They’ve also brought a bill that would allow candidates to use campaign money to cover childcare costs while they are knocking on doors or attending events.
Even though Blew is part of a super majority, she firmly believes the best work comes from bipartisanship.
“I think bad policy is passed when it's one sided, and when it's rushed through, and so definitely need to hear both sides and take the time and make sure it's quality legislation that we're passing,” Blew says. ”And there's plenty of times in committee hearings that we think we have a great bill, and then we hear a certain point and it's, ‘I didn't even think about that.’ so we definitely need their input as well to make bills even better”
Representative Rui Xu agrees, but notes they are up against a long history of people taking sides.
“The modern political atmosphere is very similar to how Americans view sports. You know, you grew up rooting for a team, your parents probably rooted for that team. It's really ingrained for you to root for that team,” he says. “One team has to win every day, one team has to lose and the media's going to cover winners and losers every single day.
“That’s not really healthy,” he says. “Politics should not be sports, people's lives and people's tax dollars are on the line. And there is literally no reason why there can't be two winners every single day on every single bill.”
For all this talk of bipartisanship benefits, is there a downside?
Some legislators say they have encountered backlash from constituents who don’t want them to compromise. Laurel Harbridge Yong, the Northwestern professor, says her research shows that in primary elections where the parties’ most partisan voters are likely to turn out, candidates can face opposition for having compromised to reach agreement with the other side. But she notes that outside of that arena, there’s strong evidence the public favors bipartisanship.
And no one is saying all divides could disappear – bipartisanship has its limits.
“I do not want to sugarcoat it,” says Beth Harwell with the National Institute of Civic Discourse.
“Politics is a rough and tumble business. It's difficult.”
Harwell says it’s probably more so on the federal level, and that’s why she is encouraged about civility work in statehouses.
“I think there's great opportunity at the state level because many of the folks that go on to national politics start at the state legislative level. And it's a great training ground at a smaller capacity to say, ‘we can work things out even though this issue is difficult, we can work it out,’” she says.
Bipartisanship is ultimately is a path toward regaining trust of the public, Harwell says.
“Civility is not just good manners, it's really being able to get something done,” Harwell says. “And if I hear anything from the public right now, it's that they're hungering and thirsting for our elected officials to come together and work out solutions.”
I'm Kelley Griffin. Thank you for joining us for Across the Aisle. We want to hear your stories of bipartisanship so please share! Send an email to email@example.com