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How Much Bipartisanship Takes Place in US Foreign Policymaking?

We spoke with SIS professor Jordan Tama and PhD student James Bryan to learn more about their research on bipartisanship in US foreign policy.

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Increasing political polarization and declining levels of bipartisanship are often included in discourse on both US domestic and foreign policymaking. SIS professor Jordan Tama and PhD student James Bryan recently co-authored an article published in International Politics in which they analyze important congressional votes between 1991 and 2017 to better understand bipartisanship and polarization when it comes to US foreign policymaking. We spoke with Tama and Bryan to learn more about their research.

You can also read their full original article, “The prevalence of bipartisanship in US foreign policy: an analysis of important congressional votes,” with access provided by the American University Library.

First off, why is it important to track trends in polarization and bipartisanship when it comes to US foreign policy?
Generally speaking, bipartisanship and areas of consensus between the parties are important to the success and coherence of US foreign policy. If Democrats and Republicans are increasingly divided on crucial issues, it becomes more difficult for the United States to make credible commitments on the international stage. If, for example, American allies or adversaries believe the opposition party does not support the current direction of foreign policy, the United States cannot credibly commit to a clear direction past the next election cycle.
More specifically regarding Congress, House and Senate leaders help set the strategic direction and funding levels for US foreign policy. Without a minimal degree of bipartisanship, Congress could even struggle to pass crucial bills like the National Defense Authorization Act, which establishes all military programs, and appropriations bills that fund the Department of Defense, State Department, and agencies of the intelligence community. By tracking trends in bipartisanship (or its absence), scholars and policymakers can better understand the prospects for action or inaction in key areas of US foreign policy.
For your research, you looked at a dataset of congressional votes categorized as “important” by the CQ Almanac between 1991 and 2017. These were votes that dealt with foreign policy and domestic policy. How did your findings deviate from some of the prior scholarship on the partisan polarization of US foreign policy?
Prior research has mostly highlighted a rise in US polarization on both domestic and international issues in recent decades. We also find increased polarization in both domains in recent years but show that bipartisanship remains more common on foreign than on domestic matters. In fact, on important foreign policy issues, we find that some degree of bipartisanship is still more common than severe polarization. This finding challenges a frequently expressed view that severe polarization has become the norm in US foreign policy. Whenever Democrats and Republicans cooperate on an issue today, the media tend to describe this as a rare exception to the rule of strong polarization. Our research shows that such cooperation is not actually rare, but rather occurs regularly, particularly on international issues.
You looked at three types of bipartisanship that take place in Congress: bipartisan agreement in support of the president’s policies, cross-partisan coalitions, and bipartisan opposition to the president’s policies. Why did you decide to break down bipartisanship into these categories?
People tend to think of bipartisanship as a binary category—i.e., either there’s bipartisanship or there’s polarization. But this leaves out some important distinctions in how Democrats and Republicans line up on issues. On some issues Democrats and Republicans in Congress band together in support of the president’s policies, while on other issues they team up to challenge the president’s policies. For instance, during Donald Trump’s presidency, bipartisan majorities in Congress overwhelmingly approved a major trade agreement that Trump negotiated with Mexico and Canada, but Congressional Democrats and Republicans challenged Trump on issues including NATO, Russia sanctions, and spending on diplomacy and foreign aid.
We use the terms “pro-presidential bipartisanship” and “anti-presidential bipartisanship” to describe these different relationships between Congress and the president. On other issues, the parties in Congress are internally divided, resulting in the formation of bipartisan coalitions on both sides of the issues. We use the term “cross-partisanship” to describe this alignment, which tends to make it very difficult to muster the majorities needed to enact legislation. Overall, we think that breaking down bipartisanship into these different types provides a more nuanced understanding of the political dynamics associated with policy debates.
You write that “since highly salient issues tend to be more polarized than less salient ones, and legislation attracts more media attention when it is controversial, bills considered important by journalists might be more likely to involve polarization.” Do you think there’s a gap between how the general public perceives the bipartisanship and polarization of US foreign policymaking and reality? And should there be efforts to lessen this gap?
The conventional wisdom is that bipartisanship is dead. While our findings do show that bipartisanship is declining over time, it is still surprisingly prevalent on issues of foreign policy. Even just from the last couple of months, the House voted overwhelmingly to allow more visas for Afghan interpreters and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted in a bipartisan manner to end two authorizations for the use of force in Iraq. Additionally, although there is usually some fanfare and brinksmanship, the major defense authorizations and appropriations bills usually pass with strong bipartisan majorities. While our research does raise concerns about declining bipartisanship, we show that major elements of bipartisanship still exist in the realm of foreign policy.
In regards to whether there should be efforts to lessen the gap, it’s generally better to have a better-informed public about congressional mechanics. Additionally, knowledge of more prevalent bipartisanship could help to mollify some voters who are disenchanted by the perceived disfunction in Washington. On the other hand, bipartisanship is often easier on issues that get less attention, so a growing knowledge of existing bipartisanship on foreign policy could incentivize more politicians to gain notoriety or a political advantage by making public criticisms of bipartisan agreements.