Why a Gridlocked Congress Is Bad for Women

By Jamie Spitz, Assistant Policy Director for Bipartisan Governance at The Lugar Center

Zero-sum politics haven’t worked. Now, more than ever, finding common ground through bipartisanship is the only way forward.

Moderation, civility, and bipartisanship are not in vogue in 2020. The year began with an impeachment, has been punctuated with partisan debates over how to respond to a deadly pandemic, and is concluding with a contested election from a President who refuses to promise a peaceful transfer of power. The lack of decorum, shredding of norms, and disregard for preserving the integrity of our democratic institutions has largely paralyzed Congress, blocking legislators from providing basic protections for the American people.

In this environment where all Americans suffer from the consequences of legislative gridlock, women have even more to lose.

The polarization of American politics has persisted through the last decade, and the pressures of the current pandemic and the need for good governance at this pivotal moment have revealed how much partisanship inhibits the ability to govern. The Lugar Center’s Bipartisan Index, a non-partisan tool that measures the degree to which members of Congress work across party lines, provides a historical view of how bipartisan behavior has changed since 1993. The data shows a drastic drop in bipartisan collaboration between the two parties in the 111th Congress (2009-2010), just after President Obama took office. While there has been a slight surge in bipartisan collaboration in bill introduction over the last four years under the Trump Administration, the incentive to follow party lines and eviscerate political opponents is evident and damaging.

Fearful of breaking with party leadership, legislators have failed to find compromise on even the most immediate needs. On the matter of COVID relief, for example, additional support for childcare and public schools is locked in a political stalemate, leaving parents (and mothers, in particular) strapped. If these urgent matters can’t pass, there is little hope for medium or longer-term initiatives.

This gridlock is particularly damaging for women and other underrepresented groups, since updated legislation is needed to remedy historical neglect. The polarization of Congress has made it impossible for legislators to find bipartisan solutions to widely supported initiatives that particularly affect women, including providing affordable childcare, equal pay for equal work, alleviating homelessness and poverty, rooting out sexual violence, and providing quality K-12 education to every American child, regardless of zip code.

The zero-sum politics practiced on Capitol Hill come at the expense of Americans seeking a better future for themselves and their children. Even so, there may be light at the end of the tunnel. A recent study by The Lugar Center found that younger Members of Congress are far more likely to cooperate on bipartisan legislation than their older counterparts.

As new, younger members enter Congress, there is hope for needed changes in the legislative process. All Americans, and particularly those in historically marginalized groups, should demand leaders who are committed to working with their peers, to finding compromise, and to governing.

Jamie Spitz serves as the Assistant Policy Director for Bipartisan Governance. Prior to joining The Lugar Center, Jamie interned for Sunshine Consultancy, a boutique management consulting firm in Denver, Colorado. She has also worked in several capacities for nonprofits both in Colorado and Indiana, managing communications, education, and outreach.

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