Two members of Iowa’s congressional delegation appear to be getting more bipartisan — and more partisan — at the same time.
Third District Democrat U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne gets the highest bipartisan ranking of the six-member Iowa congressional delegation, faring slightly better than Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, according to the Bipartisan Index from the Lugar Center and Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy.
The index is a non-partisan ranking of how often each member of Congress works across party lines. Any score above zero is considered bipartisan based on a 20-year baseline score.
Both Axne and Grassley had lower scores in 2021, but rose in the bipartisan rankings compared with their peers.
Axne’s bipartisanship score fell from 1.13045 to 1.11054, but her bipartisan ranking rose in comparison to her 435 House colleagues, from 50th in 2019-20 to 20th in 2021.
Likewise, Grassley's bipartisan score fell from 1.52958 in 2019-20 to 1.07545 in 2021. But his ranking, compared with his 100 Senate colleagues, moved up from 19th to 12th.
‘Get things done’
This is the second consecutive year Axne was named Iowa’s most bipartisan member of Congress by the Lugar Center.
Axne, first elected in 2018, said reaching across the aisle is part of “working tirelessly to bring Iowans’ voices to Congress with me.”
“Since coming to Congress, I’ve been laser-focused on cutting through bureaucratic red tape, lowering costs and expanding opportunities for Iowans, and I’m proud to have worked with colleagues from across the aisle to get things done,” she said.
Grassley has consistently ranked among the most bipartisan of U.S. senators. In this session, for example, his legislative proposals have attracted the support of 43 of his 50 Democrat colleagues.
Congress is designed to reflect the views of the people, so if the nation is more politically divided, you’d expect to see the same from the people’s representatives in Congress, according to a statement from Grassley’s office.
“There’s actually a lot of opportunities for bipartisanship, and a lot gets done that doesn’t get much attention because controversy makes news,” Grassley said.
Grassley said he’s asked at nearly all of his 99 Iowa county meetings every year “why we senators can’t get along.”
“The Senate,” he said, “is designed to encourage bipartisanship, and I’m committed to working with any member from any side of the aisle to advance policies that improve the lives and livelihoods of Iowans.”
Iowa’s other U.S. senator, Joni Ernst, had a bipartisan score of 0.02598, 40th among the 100 senators, in 2021. That was down from 0.87397 and 33rd place in 2019-20.
In the U.S. House, 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks scored 0.13262, for a rank of 86th in 2021; 1st District U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson scored negative 0.5239, for a rank of 223rd; and 4th District U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra ranked 339th with a score of negative 0.94565.
Grassley’s commitment to bipartisanship is “partly his nature,” University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle said. “But I think it also indicates the changing political environment from one Congress or year to the next.”
Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford called Grassley “a throwback to earlier times in his demeanor, but his actual record is still pretty down-the-line Republican.”
However, bipartisanship may not be as important politically as it once was — or was once believed to be, according to Goldford.
American voters have long said they wanted to see more bipartisanship. However, a 2019 Pew Research Center poll found they’re willing to forego bipartisanship to pass the legislation their party prefers.
“To the extent that politics is becoming increasingly nationalized, it matters more for a representative or senator to stick to the party line than to ‘work and play well’ with the other side,” Goldford said.
Bipartisanship occurs less often on controversial issues than on an issue “that benefits or protects everyone, regardless of ideology,” Hagle said.
“It sometimes seems these days that such issues are harder to find, which may be one reason the overall scores may be down for each chamber” of Congress, he said.
“Not to be too cynical about it, House members in particular always need to keep an eye on the next election,” Hagle said.
“If he or she is in a swing district, it might encourage the member to appear more bipartisan. Those in politically safe districts won't need to appear as bipartisan.”
Axne, for example, is in a district the Cook Political Report rates as a tossup, Goldford said. As in her previous races, he said, Axne will likely struggle to win any counties in the 3rd District outside of Polk.
Appearing to be bipartisan may help Axne with no-party voters, who “tend to care less about partisan fighting, so bipartisan efforts to ‘get things done’ to benefit them will be more important,” Hagle said.
For other members of Congress, such as Hinson and Miller-Meeks, who are in districts rated “likely Republican,” there may be little incentive to appear bipartisan, Goldford said.
“To the extent that the Republican Party is Trumpified, there’s no benefit to them from bipartisanship,” he said. “Establishment Democrats have a similar problem, though not as extreme, with their progressive wing.”
University of Northern Iowa political scientist Chris Larimer thinks bipartisanship may be a non-factor, “given the hyperpolarized atmosphere.”
“For the very, very small slice of the electorate that is truly undecided and capable of being persuaded to vote for either side, then perhaps this is an important factor,” Larimer said.
“But increasingly,” he said, “research shows that very few voters are persuadable and (candidates’) campaign are based on mobilizing voters, not persuading voters.”