We Need Collaborative Policymaking

Posted by Molly Rockett on June 25, 2015
A recent article by David Hawkings in Roll Call offers a brief window into one of the last lingering bipartisan conventions in D.C.: The Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game. Once a year, all of D.C. is treated to a show as our congressional representatives channel their considerable energy away from the Hill and into seven innings of enthusiastic baseball. Hawkings aptly describes this spectacle as “one of the great set pieces of a Washington summer,” while also adding a note of advice to future attendees. “Commit to spending at least a few of the seven innings on ‘the wrong side’ of the field,” Hawkings says, referencing the expected seating divide of Republicans on the right of Nationals Stadium and Democrats on the left. The annual baseball game, Hawking argues, is a rare reprieve from the otherwise constant partisan tension that dominates D.C.

Off the Field Hostility

Nowhere is this tension more acutely felt than within the walls of Congress itself. As Hawkings points out, off the baseball field “members spend precious little time socializing in bipartisan company.” The reasons for these deepening personal divisions between members are varied. In our Best Practices for Collaborative Policymaking guide, we trace the roots of partisan animosity back to increasingly lengthy party-driven campaign seasons and reduced social contact between legislators. The several months of fundraising that bookend every election, as well as the uncivil tone of many campaign ads, certainly don’t facilitate cordial relationships on the Hill--and the little free time that members do spend in D.C. during the legislative session is often dominated by fundraising rather than socialization. The annual gathering at Nationals Stadium for a little bipartisan mingling is a rare exception to the rule.

This hostility off the field is a real problem in D.C. As our guide illustrates, legislative collaboration largely depends on the strength of personal relationships across party lines. Without cordial and respectful connections between members, ideological and political differences dominated the conversation, and the gulf between parties can seem insurmountable. Legislative relationships defined by trust, civility, and respect, are engines for bipartisan policymaking. Americans agree that this culture of antagonism has got to change. In a 2010-2011 survey done by the public relation firms Weber Shandwick, Powell Tate and KRC research, 65% of participants agreed that incivility was a “major problem” in congress.

We think the solution can come in a few different ways.

Strengthening Bipartisanship Collaboration

First of all, legislators from across the aisle need to spend more time interacting with each other at bipartisan social events. At the state level, such events have had an enormous effect on promoting bipartisanship and collaboration. Under Cas Taylor, a former speaker of the Maryland House, new legislators in Maryland took a bipartisan bus trip around the state with senior members to build new relationships. At the federal level, U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, the Daily Beast reports, praised the monthly bipartisan dinner parties among Senate women as a chance to “resolve conflicts the way friends do.” When legislatures get to know each other as people, civility on the floor will follow.

Secondly, we’re lacking in legislative rules and procedures that are conducive to bipartisanship. When the power to set the legislative agenda is concentrated among ruling party elite, collaboration is stifled. We need rules that decentralize control over the agenda. Procedural changes like the automatic advancement of bills, or limits on majority party control of committees, could empower both parties in the policymaking process.

Finally, our winner-take-all voting system with single-winner districts makes it easy for this combative culture to continue. We need Ranked Choice Voting to combat negative ads and mudslinging in campaigning. When legislators spend all campaign season ripping each other apart, it’s almost impossible for them to build working relationships in D.C. Ranked Choice Voting combats negative campaigning by giving candidates an incentive to appeal to a broader range of voters. Candidates are competing to be the second choice on voters’ ballots, and therefore have an incentive to keep campaign dialog civil. Our Civility Report provides evidence of Ranked Choice Voting increasing civility in the localities that have adopted it. American voters are tired of congressional gridlock and partisan divide. One baseball game a year, while certainly a blast to watch, isn’t enough to move our government forward. With the reforms suggested by FairVote, we can start on the path to more civility now.
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