Congressional Bipartisanship Isn’t Dead; It’s Just Under the Radar

“Don’t believe all the hype of Washington, D.C.,” Congressman Tom Reed (R-NY) urged last week at a Duke panel discussion. That hype feeds a lot of misconceptions about widespread and extreme polarization in Congress. The truth, Reed said is collaboration can, and does, happen across the aisle.

Reed and fellow Congressman Dan Lipinski (D-IL) spoke about how collaboration can, and does happen across the aisle. Both are members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group in the House of Representatives. Reed said the caucus consists of 48 members, equally distributed between Republicans and Democrats, who vote together as a bloc when the group reaches a 75 percent consensus on an issue with at least 51 percent Democratic and 51 percent Republican caucus support.

Lipinski said the group wants to return to a previous era of political collaboration that successfully moved the needle on issues important to the American people.

“Traditionally, big changes and new programs that have lasted have been done in a bipartisan manner,” said Lipinski, who received a Ph.D. from Duke. “Most American people still want to see problems solved.”

The talk was sponsored by POLIS: Duke’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service and cosponsored by the Sanford School of Public Policy, the Duke University Program in American Grand Strategy, and the Duke Program in American Values and Institutions.

Reed emphasized that their ability to function together as a bipartisan group relies on a “culture of trust” that includes getting to know their colleagues on a personal level through honest conversations. In addition to creating proposals and voting as a bloc, Reed explained that the Problem Solvers have also committed to not campaign against fellow caucus members or monetarily support their opponents.

POLIS director Fritz Mayer, who moderated the panel, said while “everyone wants Congress to function better,” there are obstacles to greater bipartisanship. Lipinski and Reed both noted that the an increasingly polarized media relies on political gridlock and leads to heightened constituent demand for implementation of their party’s entire agenda. This is true, even if, Lipinski said, “it means you don’t get any progress made at all.”

Lipinski added the Democratic and Republican parties in Congress have become increasingly top-down driven, operating “more like a parliamentary system where all the members are expected to follow the party line and vote the way they are told to vote by the party leadership.”

When asked about issues in which the Problem Solvers Caucus has been able to make progress, Reed and Lipinski highlighted their work on prison reform and health care, particularly their focus on the individual marketplace issue. Reed discussed the group’s more recent work on creating a proposal of seven rule reforms aimed at reforming the House’s top-centered institutional power structure, thereby reducing partisanship.

Reed said the Problem Solvers Caucus plans to withhold votes for the next Speaker of the House unless the candidate embraces their proposed rule reforms, regardless of the outcomes of the midterm election. He maintained that caucus members are fully prepared to vote across party lines for a speaker who supports their proposed changes.

After discussion opened up to the audience, one student asked about the balance between representing a constituency and compromising one’s party agenda for bipartisanship. Reed responded that while there will always be strong voices in their respective districts, “the heart of the district wants something done. They’re very passionate about their position, but they don’t want you to go there and do nothing.”

Students also posed questions about the potential Democratic takeover of the House after the midterms and the subsequent possible impeachment of President Trump. Both Lipinski and Reed expressed that concrete evidence, which could arise from the ongoing Mueller investigation, would be necessary before House Democrats move ahead with impeachment, as impeachment without such evidence could cause complete dysfunction between the two parties for the following two years.

When looking toward the future of the Problem Solvers Caucus, Reed and Lipinski were optimistic.

“It’s not necessarily about being bigger,” Reed said. “It’s about the depth of relationships and how we are really coming together as a bloc.” Reed emphasized that the Problem Solvers have increasingly been seen as models for a more functional House and Senate.

Lipinski said that as the Problem Solvers continue to increase their presence in the House, they will be able to show not just Congress, but the general public that “there is a different way to do things.”