Posted by Deb Otis on December 03, 2015 at 10:48 AM
Rising partisanship and polarization have made it increasingly difficult for legislators to engage in the bipartisan cooperation necessary for effective policymaking. While much of this dysfunction stems from entrenched national problems – a polarizing electorate, flawed elections, and an increasingly corrosive media environment – other causes originate from within our legislatures themselves.
In Best Practices for Collaborative Policymaking: Learning from Power-Sharing Arrangements in State Legislatures, FairVote and the Bipartisan Policy Center examine power-sharing agreements in state legislatures in order to draw lessons about bipartisan cooperation. The report identifies two factors that significantly impact the prospects for collaboration: the level of majority party control over the agenda, and the strength of personal relationships across party lines. It recommends specific reforms that can help legislators to bridge the growing ideological divide and work together for the good of their constituents.
Accompanying the report is an overview of the status of legislative rules impacting collaboration in the 50 states.
To view the 50-state database of legislative rules that can help foster collaboration, click here: Legislative Rules Database.
Clearing a Path for Collaborative Legislation
Control over the legislative agenda allows majority party leaders to block inclusive legislation in favor of partisan outcomes. Often, majority party leaders use their control of the agenda to block legislation that does not enjoy the support of a majority or more within their caucus, and, as a result, legislation that would receive the support of bipartisan majorities in the full chamber can be kept from the floor, in favor of partisan alternatives.
Wider adoption of rules and practices that decentralize agenda-setting power in order to clear a path for collaborative solutions. While most chambers give control over the agenda to the majority party or majority party leaders, other have adopted procedures that decentralize control over the agenda, empowering collaboration and the inclusion of both parties in the policymaking process. Rules and practices that can decentralize control of the agenda fall into three categories:
- Automatic advancement of bills: In many chambers, party leaders determine what bills will be heard in committee and which will be brought to the floor, but in others, committees are required to hear or report all bills, and bills reported from committee are automatically placed on the floor calendar for a vote. Together, these rules eliminate formal control over the agenda at both stages of the legislative process.
- Majoritarian rules: Rules in some states allow majorities in committees and on the floor to place items on the legislative agenda, allowing bipartisan majorities to advance legislation regardless of the preferences of party leaders. Examples include discharge petitions, motions to advance an item on the floor calendar, and rules that allow a committee's members, to place items on the committee agenda.
- Limits on majority party control of committee composition: In most chambers, committees play an important role in determining what legislation can be brought to the floor. Limits on the ability of majority party leadership to control the composition of committees and the selection of chairs help ensure that the minority will have a voice in this stage of the process, improving the prospects for bipartisan legislation.
Building Trust Across the Aisle
Bipartisan cooperation is unlikely without strong, civil relationships between legislators and legislative leaders of opposing parties. The report's case studies illustrate the importance of building relationships between legislators of opposing parties that are characterized by civility and trust, as a prerequisite to engaging in bipartisan collaboration. This is especially true of legislative leaders.
State chambers should take proactive steps to foster civility and trust. Collaborative policymaking requires that legislators with different ideals and perspectives be willing to engage one another in the deliberations and bargaining necessary for them to find common ground. In the absence of trust and civility, legislators are unlikely to see these negotiations through, or initiate them in the first place. Strategies for improving legislative relationships include:
- Bipartisan social events: Legislators often identify social interaction between Republicans and Democrats as an effective way to build the sort of relationships on which collaboration can be built, outside of the pressure and antagonism that often typify their professional relations.
- Educational initiatives: A number of organizations have developed educational initiatives that aim to foster civility and trust in the face of ideological differences. For example, the Next Generation initiative, a project of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, works with with state legislators in workshops that are designed to strengthen bipartisan relationships and equip legislators with the tools they need to improve the quality of discourse in their chamber.