Progress in State Legislatures Challenges the Narrative that Bipartisanship is Unattainable
By Arvind Venkat, State Representative, 30th Legislative District, Pennsylvania
We have all seen the political divide that besets Americans. Whether it involves debates over reproductive rights, gun control, or the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the phrase “a House divided” certainly seems to fit the bill. In fact, our current divide has been described as the most extreme in history since the Great Depression and the Civil War.
In this contentious climate, it would be easy to make the argument that bipartisanship is dead and cannot be resurrected in state legislatures, let alone any form of government.
Blame for this divide has been attributed to everything from media outlets and political pundits to far-left and far-right political activists and legislators, furthering the notion that nothing gets accomplished at the state or federal level because of the heavy ideological divide between our parties.
I would argue that nothing is further from the truth and that bipartisanship is not only alive and well, but is the motivating force behind the passage of some of our most important legislation at the state level.
Crossing the Political Divide
One might ask: How is bipartisanship possible when our country is so divided? The answer is that when it comes to many of the real-life issues that matter most to our constituents, the divide may not be as great as the pundits claim. Despite the finger-pointing and media attention focused on the issues that divide us, state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle recognize that many issues and desires—like those for quality health care and education, support for small businesses, economic growth, the smart use of tax dollars, affordable housing, and programs to help our seniors and our veterans—all matter to the people they represent.
Our own record in the Pennsylvania General Assembly bears this out. The Pennsylvania House is composed of 101 Democrats and 100 Republicans, while our state Senate consists of 28 Republicans and 22 Democrats. Not only do we come together to pass bills every year, but we vote together to pass unique, historic laws.
For example, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle recently voted unanimously to pass a first-of-its-kind law that will require health insurers to cover preventive breast cancer screenings for high-risk patients at no cost. Senate Bill 8 was introduced by Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, a Republican. After unanimous passage in both houses, the bill was signed into law by our Democratic governor, Josh Shapiro. The bill is now Act 1 of 2023 and it was enacted because the issue it addresses—the health of half of the population—is not an R issue or a D issue. It’s a human issue.
Research on state legislatures supports this claim. According to Tim Storey, chief executive officer of the National Conference of State Legislatures, while hyper-partisan issues such as abortion, gun control, and LGBTQ+ rights tend to attract the most attention, more than 85% of the final votes on state legislation are bipartisan.
It can be tempting to focus on conflict. But while conflicts may make for more dramatic sound bites, the reality is that they are not an accurate reflection of the practical, bipartisan work state legislators do daily to accomplish practical good for residents and communities.
State Legislatures Working For the People
It’s easy to tune into Fox News or MSNBC and hear heated political commentary that can polarize viewers. In real life, however, legislators can’t operate that way. During the legislative session, the give and take of the lawmaking process requires us to defend our positions and priorities, stand for interrogation on bills we introduce, and consider amendments to those bills. Although it can be a contentious process, it is ultimately a productive one that ensures that the final legislation we pass fully reflects the interests of the people we were elected to represent.
A look at the many states with a “trifecta”—where the governor and both houses of the legislature belong to the same political party—suggests that bipartisanship remains an important part of the lawmaking process. Take the recent vote in North Dakota, in which Democratic Senate minority leader Kathy Hogan’s bill affirming the legal rights of physicians who perform abortions passed in the Senate 43-4. North Dakota’s Senate is a supermajority chamber, with only four Democrats and 43 Republicans, meaning that Senator Hogan won 40 votes from across the aisle.
This is just one of countless examples of bipartisanship in state legislatures throughout the country, and I’m proud to be a part of that process right here in Pennsylvania.
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Rep. Arvind Venkat, an emergency physician, is the first Indian American to be elected to the Pennsylvania State House and the first physician to serve in the Pennsylvania General Assembly in nearly 60 years. Rep. Venkat is a fighter for affordable healthcare, first responders, reproductive rights, gun control, ballot access, and more. Rep. Venkat completed his undergraduate and graduate education at Harvard University, his medical education at Yale University, and his emergency medicine residency at the University of Cincinnati/University Hospital.