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What is an acceptable measure of bipartisanship?
If Your Time is short
- Political experts said the definition for "bipartisan bills" used by Escobar and her team is a low bar by which to judge cooperation between political parties.
- The bills she cited had at least one Republican voting in favor or had at least one Republican co-sponsor on board.
In the Democrats’ Spanish-language response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso said the president and his allies are "the biggest threat to our safety and security" because they are "unwilling to take action for our country, acting solely in their own interest."
She went on to highlight the actions of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
"Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Senate, is openly stonewalling legislation that would help improve the lives of veterans, women, and families – all of us," Escobar said, according to an English language translation of her remarks provided by her office. "House Democrats have passed more than 275 bipartisan bills this Congress, but these bills are gathering dust on his desk."
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who delivered the Democratic Party’s response in English after the State of the Union, cited similar figures when discussing McConnell’s actions: "Those three bills, and more than 275 other bipartisan bills, are just gathering dust on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk."
The New York Times called Whitmer’s claim "exaggerated," based on an analysis from Factcheck.org of a statement from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi making the same claim.
Escobar’s office shared a list of 291 "bipartisan" bills that were approved by the House since the beginning of 2019 but are awaiting action in the Senate, as of Jan. 24. Let’s dive in.
No universal definition of ‘bipartisan’
Elizabeth Lopez-Sandoval, spokeswoman for Escobar, said Escobar considered bills as being bipartisan if there was "at least one Republican vote on the House floor," or if the bill was passed by a voice vote and "has at least one Republican cosponsor."
"Bills that passed on voice vote but do not have at least one Republican cosponsor were excluded," she said.
While there is no singular definition of what constitutes a bipartisan bill, the four political experts we consulted for this piece generally agreed that Escobar used a low bar by which to judge cooperation between political parties.
Kirby Goidel, director of the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University, said the term "bipartisan" has taken on a looser definition in regular usage because it is "advantageous in terms of public support."
"It is not unusual to call a bill bipartisan when it only received a single vote from across the aisle, though that runs against our more general understanding of what the term is intended to mean," he said in an email. "It is also easy to imagine individual representatives more willing to compromise because they are Republican representing a Democratic district (or vice versa), so adding one member of the opposition in that context wouldn't strike anyone as ‘bipartisan’."
As an example, he added: "(U.S. Sen. Mitt) Romney's vote didn't make the vote for impeachment bipartisan."
Goidel said a better definition for bipartisan would be legislation that has "majority support from both parties."
"Though ideally we wouldn't include resolutions or other items that generate little or no opposition, because the term also implies that the parties worked together to compromise on an important and potentially controversial issue," he said.
For the purposes of this fact-check, we’ll rely on counting the votes, since it is tricky to gauge how much collaboration went into each proposal behind the scenes.
Jordan Tama, associate professor at American University who is writing a book about bipartisanship, said it is "less common" to see a truly bipartisan process in today’s Congress, since members tend to develop legislation within their own party and only look to attract support from the other party after the fact.
"It is more common to see bipartisanship reflected in voting outcomes, even though in many of these cases the legislation wasn’t developed in a very bipartisan method," Tama said. "You can still call something bipartisan if the votes show support from both parties, even if it wasn’t developed through a highly collaborative process."
Members of both parties tend to make claims about bipartisanship based on support from one member of the other party, according to Laura Blessing, senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.
"Everybody does this," she said. "This is strategic messaging to a larger audience about the nature of legislation and values of main sponsors in reaching across the aisle, but that doesn’t mean it is a meaningless standard.
"There is a spectrum about how we think of measures of bipartisanship, and if these people want to use this, well, people have done this before and they’ll do it again. It is a reasonable standard, but there are higher ones out there."
Adding up the numbers
When a bill comes before the full House, there are two primary ways the legislative body votes: a roll call vote or a voice vote.
In a roll call vote, the names of each legislator are read aloud and their vote is recorded alongside their name.
When the body passes a measure in a voice vote, members call out "aye" or "nay" on the question of passage and the presiding officer decides which side prevailed. If there is a dispute over the decision, members stand to get an exact tally of the vote.
Of the 291 bills Escobar’s team marked as bipartisan, 116 passed in a roll call vote and 175 passed by a voice vote.
Before we get into the votes, here’s a reminder about the party breakdown in the House. There are 232 Democrats, 197 Republicans and one independent. Five seats are vacant.
Let’s start with the 116 roll call votes: 71 passed with the support of a majority of Republican members of the House, ranging from 100 votes to 196 votes. Seven bills passed with anywhere from 55 to 93 GOP votes, and 38 passed with fewer than 50 Republican votes — 23 of which passed with fewer than 10 Republican votes.
Escobar’s team flagged 175 bills that passed via a voice vote and have at least one Republican co-sponsor. Of those, 63 have Republican sponsors, meaning a Republican introduced the bill, and at least one Democrat as a co-sponsor.
Looking at the 112 bills with a Democrat as the sponsor, five have more than 50 Republican co-sponsors and the rest have 32 or fewer Republican co-sponsors. Of those, 95 have fewer than 10 Republican co-sponsors.
Tama said he didn’t think it was worth it to split hairs over sponsorships on bills that passed by a voice vote, since that generally indicates that there is support for the bill from both parties.
"You can really only use (a voice vote) when the vast majority of members are going to vote for it," he said. "If you imagine a vote where two parties are polarized, you’d have almost as many voting yes and no — you wouldn’t be able to judge the outcome. I think it is safe to say that all of the voice votes involved bipartisan support, even if we can’t know for sure what the result is."
Overall, the experts we consulted agreed that, given the various definitions of bipartisan, Escobar’s claim was largely accurate but could use more clarifying details.
Sean Theriault, a government professor at the University of Texas, said her use of the term bipartisan is fair.
"It’s certainly not telling the whole truth, but a single vote from the other side does indicate that it enjoys support from both parties," he said in an email.
"So, of course, we would prefer Escobar to say, ‘275 bills that have received at least support from one Republican are sitting on McConnell’s desk,’ but calling them ‘bipartisan’ is not wrong."
Escobar said: "House Democrats have passed more than 275 bipartisan bills this Congress."
Escobar counted bills as bipartisan if they had at least one Republican vote in favor or at least one Republican co-sponsor.
Political experts said that her measurement is not inaccurate, but it doesn’t conform to a general understanding of the term.
Using the higher bar for measuring bipartisan legislation offered by these experts — support from a majority of members of both parties — plus counting legislation that passed on a voice vote, the total comes to 251 bills, which is close to Escobar’s claim.
Overall, her statement needs clarification. We rate it Mostly True.
Correction: This article has been revised to correct the spelling of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's name.
Emailed press release, Democratic Response to President Trump’s State of the Union Delivered by Texas Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, Feb. 4, 2020
Factcheck.org, Pelosi’s Bipartisanship Boast, Dec. 17, 2019
C-SPAN, Democratic Spanish Language Response to State of the Union, Feb. 4, 2020
Email interview with Elizabeth Lopez-Sandoval, Feb. 6, 2020
El Paso Times, Congresswoman Veronica Escobar's State of the Union rebuttal to be delivered from El Paso, Feb. 3, 2020
New York Times, Fact-Checking Trump’s 2020 State of the Union Address and the Democratic Response, Feb. 5, 2020
U.S. House of Representatives, House Practice, 2017
Email interview, Kirby Goidel, director of the Public Policy Research Institution at Texas A&M University, Feb. 11, 2020
Email interview with Sean Theriault, government professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Feb. 11, 2020
Phone interview with Jordan Tama, associate professor of international service at American University, Feb. 11, 2020
Phone interview with Laura Blessing, senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, Feb. 12, 2020
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