Finally, someone has offered a useful measurement to help us all understand what’s behind Congress’ inability to get things done.
The Bipartisan Index, started last week by the Lugar Center and the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, ranks each member of Congress according to how hard they work at compromise and cooperation.
The index ranks each senator and representative by how often he or she cosponsors a bill introduced by a member of the opposite party, and how often his or her bills are cosponsored by others from across the aisle. The survey shows that the minority Democrats, in spite of their more frequent protestations, have not cornered the market on efforts to cooperate. The senator with the highest ranking is Maine Republican Susan Collins. On the House side, seven Republicans and three Democrats are in the top 10.
The findings, though, confirm the image of a Congress paralyzed with fractiousness. "Of the last 10 congresses," former Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar said Friday, "the 112th and 113th (2011-14) were by far the most partisan." The most recent years measured were also the least productive, he said. In other words, a lot of fighting and not much getting done.
For Indiana, the index offers good news and bad news. The good news is that Democrat Joe Donnelly is ranked the third most bipartisan senator. The bad news is that Republican Dan Coats came in 87th out of 98 senators ranked. (Senate and House leadership and members who hadn’t introduced as many as three substantive, non-ceremonial bills were excluded from the rankings.)
Republican Susan Brooks, a Fort Wayne native who represents the 5th District in central Indiana, was another bright spot in the survey. She ranked 27th among House members. But U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman was ranked 365th out of 422 House members rated.
Lugar acknowledged Friday most of the Indiana congressional group ranked low.
"I was surprised," Lugar said.
When U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita visited our editorial board earlier this month, he said he had read about the index but wasn’t aware that he was ranked 333rd among House members.
But Rokita contends that measuring a member’s willingness to seek and lend support from the other party is "a ham-handed way to measure whether someone acts bipartisan or not."
"Don’t worry about how many bills you pass," Rokita said. Worry instead, he said, about "reining in" government waste. Rokita believes it would be more meaningful to look at the work that goes on behind the scenes in Congress.
Rokita may have a point, Lugar said Friday. But "I would say that a lot of the behind-the-scenes work is related to trying to get votes and cosponsorships." Lugar represented Indiana for 36 years in the Senate and knows something about what happens behind the scenes.
Donnelly’s high ranking in the survey was no surprise. As a House member, Donnelly was an instinctive consensus-builder as a member of the Blue Dog Coalition of Democratic moderates. An example in the Senate has been his work with other lawmakers and their federal government on veterans’ issues.
After regaining his seat through a bruising primary in which he had to "out-conservative" candidates with stronger tea party credentials, Coats has often played a "Senator No" role in Washington.
But now that he has declined to run for re-election, Coats could move toward the kind of thoughtful Republicanism that Lugar practiced so long in the same chamber.
Coats’ "Waste of the Week" presentations on government spending this year have been engaging and constructive without seeming overtly political. More seasoned on foreign policy than most GOP senators, Coats could tone down the incessant negative critiques of President Barack Obama and offer his colleagues the kind of wisdom that led him to decline to sign the outrageously inappropriate letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran sent by 47 Republican senators.
Coats spokesperson Matt Lahr said Friday the index favors lawmakers who co-sponsor a large amount of legislation.
"Senator Coats is a conservative Republican who is committed to finding bipartisan solutions to our country’s biggest problems," Lahr said in an email. "The senator supports many legislative ideas introduced by both Republicans and Democrats, but he is selective about the bills he co-sponsors."
Stutzman, who even has publicly clashed with the House leadership of his own party, has shown flashes of bipartisanship on veterans’ issues and other matters. He would serve his region better to do more of that and offer less obstructionism – especially if he wins Coats’ Senate seat in 2016. Stutzman’s low ranking in the Lugar Center’s survey is somewhat at odds with a survey by the Legislative Effectiveness Project released last year, which found that Stutzman "overperformed" in his first year as a congressman. Stutzman’s office did not return a phone message or an emailed request for comment on the index finding.
Lugar emphasizes that the kind of cooperation his group is measuring and advocating doesn’t require lawmakers to abandon strong beliefs. But good governance, he said, requires lawmakers to work with the other party to write and support bills that have a broad enough appeal to have a chance of passing.
"Unfortunately," he said, "a great deal of legislation is offered to make a point."
As he emphasizes on the center’s website, thelugarcenter.org, the point of the survey is to encourage lawmakers to look for ways to get things done by reaching out to other members.
Indeed, he said, "my guess is that many in the Hoosier delegation will in fact respond to the index."
The findings the center released last week were for 2013 and 2014. Lugar said though he doesn’t have enough analysis to comment on specific members of the new Congress, preliminary data from the first four months of 2015 indicate that Indiana’s representatives are doing better and their ratings will be up when the next Bipartisan Index is released in early 2017.
If it’s true that you get what you measure, the Bipartisan Index could help put our whole congressional delegation on a more productive path.
Tim Harmon is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.