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Groups Help Lawmakers Pursue Civility and Bipartisanship, the Unicorns of Politics

A State Legislatures News Special Report

By Kelley Griffin  |  March 21, 2023

sln special report

Ask 97-year-old Arlyne Reichert for a surefire way to promote bipartisanship, and she’ll cite a personal experience that led her to conclude that legislators should not sit separated by party across the proverbial aisle. 

Reichert, one of the 100 delegates elected to rewrite Montana’s Constitution in 1972, 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,” says Reichert, the oldest of the 10 delegates still living. “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—they also became lifelong friends, Reichert says. 

Having Republicans and Democrats sit in alternating seats, or sitting 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. But researchers also say that the effort improves passage rates for legislation and can build public trust.

Across the Aisle: Exploring Bipartisanship

NCSL’s “Across the Aisle” podcast examines the steady effort many lawmakers are making to strengthen civility and bipartisan work. “Civility is not just good manners, it’s really being able to get something done,” says Beth Harwell, the Republican former speaker of the Tennessee House who joined the discussion.

Listen now

Read more of this SLN Special Report: Against All Odds: How the Minority Gets Work Done in Supermajority Chambers

Laurel Harbridge-Yong, an associate political science professor at Northwestern University and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research, has studied bipartisanship for years at the federal and state levels. 

“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,” she says.

That’s true even when a party has a so-called supermajority, enabling it to pass whatever  it wants without minority support. 

“We find that bipartisanship is valuable for both majority and minority members,” Harbridge-Yong says.

Bipartisanship Gets a Boost

In the past decade or so, national organizations have formed to develop best practices and train state legislators.

The National Institute for Civil Discourse, formed in the wake of a shooting that wounded U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona and killed six others, has a program called Next Generation, which runs civility workshops.

“Compromise is not a dirty word, and working with each other is actually a goal we should all strive for,” says Republican former Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell, who manages the Next Generation program. She made a point of bringing the civility workshop to her chamber while she was in leadership.

“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 program for the majority party was “to treat others what way we would like to be treated.”

The Next Generation program goes to a state only when invited by the leadership, to ensure there’s strong support. The workshops start with participants getting to know one another beyond party and beyond the work in the Capitol. 

“One of the first things we do is really develop an understanding of each other,” Harwell says. “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’s 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 (D) says they wanted to welcome new members and bounce back from the disconnect of the pandemic years of Zoom calls. While Democrats are in the majority, Longhurst says the state has a history of the parties working together. But they wanted to build on that. They’re now planning a dinner

together and activities like volleyball or zip lining. She says the workshop helped in ways constituents will be able to observe. 

“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 the National Conference of State Legislatures, says that every state has rules and traditions aimed at supporting free and fair debate. 

“They allow the majority to get their way,” she says, “but they also allow the minority to get their say.”

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: Every bill will get a vote in the House. And Texas has a decadeslong 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 with bipartisanship.”

A Younger Perspective

Another national group focused on bipartisanship, the Millennial Action Project, targets young lawmakers, says it’s president and CEO, Layla Zaiden.

“We exist to help bridge the partisan divide and improve American democracy,” she says.

“MAP was really born out of a sense of possibility that the rising generation could do things differently.”

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, focused on issues such as affordable housing, college tuition rates, voting reforms and access to health care.

Zaiden notes that Gen Zers, people born between 1997 and 2013, increased their numbers in state legislatures by 170% in the last election. And “independent” is the fastest-growing party affiliation. She thinks this generation isn’t buying into hardline party politics. 

“It’s not really how young people are operating,” Zaiden says. “And that opens up 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, but they also include a good bit of socializing—like in Kansas, where the Future Caucus got together for one of its early meetings to try axe throwing.

Kansas Rep. Tory Marie Blew, the caucus’ Republican co-chair, says the fun events can set the stage for more serious work. When she and Democrat Rui Xu became co-chairs, they surveyed members to zero in on issues where they had a common interest. 

“We were able to say, 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 members 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 Gov. Laura Kelley. This session, they are working on measures to support entrepreneurs. They’ve also brought forward a bill that would allow candidates to use campaign money to cover child care costs while they are knocking on doors or attending events. 

Even though Blew is part of a supermajority, 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. We 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.” 

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.”

Despite Limits, Public Favors Bipartisanship

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. 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: Politics is a rough-and-tumble business,” Harwell says, adding that she’s 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,’” she says.

Bipartisanship ultimately is a path toward regaining public trust, Harwell says.

“Civility is not just good manners—it’s really being able to get something done,” she 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.”

Kelley Griffin is the host of NCSL’s “Across the Aisle” podcast.

Civility—3 Paths to the Prize

Whether you’re waiting in line in a public place or stuck in traffic, examples of incivility are all too common. State legislatures are rife with their own examples. In some forums, the art of civility—of speaking honestly, openly and courteously to others—seems to have been lost.

But there is hope! The nonprofit South Dakota News Watch reported a recent upswing in civility in the state’s Legislature. That follows the 2022 censure of a state representative and a poll that year by the nonprofit news group in which a majority of state residents said civility was on the decline.

The improved lawmaking process in Pierre, and improved discussion on hot topics, is benefiting the residents of South Dakota because stronger legislation is being passed, Rep. Oren Lesmeister told News Watch. Sen. Helene Duhamel added that legislators should behave like the leaders they are. “If you don’t treat people well, how in the world do you ever expect to work with them and find a compromise or have them see your point of view?” Although debates over legislation did not become less contentious, a spirit of bipartisanship prevailed when dealing with challenging issues.

Here are three paths to greater civility in all aspects of life:

1. Ethics: Be clear about your internal values and what guides your conduct. What do you believe about civility? How do you promote civility in your life? Are you constantly searching within to note what’s important to you?

2. Example: Set the example and lead with your actions. How do you treat others? An important test of civility is how you treat those who have no power over you: the store clerk, the custodian, the restaurant server. Do you give them the same respect as those with authority over you? How do you respond when you are treated in an uncivil manner? Do you respond in kind, or do you take the high road?

3. Endurance: Has your civility lasted? Are you striving to be civil each day and with each interaction? And although it’s sometimes difficult to maintain an air of civility, do you try? And if those who work with you were asked, what would they say about how you treat them? And when the going is tough, how do you respond?

A simple commitment to civility can improve our daily lives, and the lives of those around us.

—Mark Quiner, director, NCSL Center for Ethics in Government

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