Tonight, two dozen female members of Congress—Democrats and Republicans alike—will descend on Watkins Recreation Center in Southeast, DC. They’ll come together to play the women in the press corps in what has become an annual seven-inning softball game. Leaving their partisan affiliations off the field, the early summer face-off fosters across-the-aisle collegiality that rarely surfaces on Capitol Hill.
As in years past, Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand will likely brag about convincing softball superstar Republican Elise Stefanik to join the team. Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz might once again high-five Alabama Republican Martha Roby. (It depends on whether the congresswomen secure another victory over the “Bad News Babes.”) And emcee Senator Amy Klobuchar will likely gush about her female colleagues. “We call it ‘beat the press,’ not ‘meet the press!’” she taunted last year.
The game allows for more than a fun night out. Democrat Donna Edwards describes it as a “wonderful way … to get to know [her] colleagues.” Republican Mia Love relishes the opportunity to “meet some people that [she] wouldn’t have had the chance to actually meet.” These softball-generated friendships—as well as the bipartisan dinners, trips to the theatre, bowling nights, and baby showers in which women in Congress participate—matter when it comes to the governing process. Because Democratic and Republican women are friends with each other outside the chamber, they are more likely to trust and cooperate with one another inside the halls of Congress. Or so the conventional wisdom goes.
We like a good softball game, baby shower, or bowling night as much as the next person. And we think that any activity that contributes to civility and collegiality in the Capitol is time well spent. But we’re concerned with this conventional wisdom for two reasons. First, it’s just not true. And second, it could actually be doing a disservice to women in politics.
Let’s begin with the prevailing view that women are more likely than men to move forward a legislative process that has so long been plagued by polarization and partisan warfare. We tested this premise in four ways, and came up with no evidence for it whatsoever, no matter where we looked.
First, we considered official congressional travel. Taking fact-finding trips abroad as part of formal congressional delegations—known as CODELs—is one way to gather the information needed to make informed foreign policy decisions. Some CODELs are partisan (all members traveling together are of the same party), and others are bipartisan (the CODEL includes at least one Democrat and one Republican). If women prioritize accruing information in a more collegial, cooperative way, then they should take fewer partisan, and more bipartisan, trips than men. They don’t.
We identified the trips taken by 9,732 members of Congress over a 35-year period (1977-2012). Women are just as likely as men to take partisan trips, and no more likely to engage in bipartisan travel. They also spend roughly the same number of days participating in CODELS (a little more than 10 days per Congress).
Second, we examined patterns of co-sponsorship. Are women any more likely than men to work across the aisle and either cosponsor a bill introduced by a member of the opposite party; or attract cosponsors from the opposite party? No, they’re not.
Here, we rely on the Lugar Center’s Bipartisan Index, which scores senators—dating back to 1993 —on the extent to which they cross party lines when signing onto colleagues’ bills, or attracting support for their own. Democratic women and men are statistically indistinguishable from one another, as are their GOP colleagues. The Lugar Center doesn’t have data for the House, except for the 113th Congress. But the results from that lone Congress certainly don’t help the conventional wisdom. Republican women and men’s scores don’t differ. Among Democrats, though, women are actually less bipartisan than men.
Third, we examined procedural votes, which are frequently used to obstruct legislation, stymie debate, or alter the normal amending process. If women are more likely than men to cooperate and be “problem solvers,” then they should be more inclined to vote with colleagues across the aisle on measures that would move the process along and generate a more efficient, collaborative route to a final passage vote (regardless of the fact that those final passage votes are likely to be highly partisan). But here, too, they’re not.
We analyzed nearly 14,000 procedural votes members of the House and Senate have cast dating back to 1973. And we found almost no evidence that women and men vote differently on these matters. For House Republicans, and for both parties in the Senate, there are no gender differences. The only difference is among Democrats in the House. But it’s the opposite of what we might expect: women’s procedural voting scores are slightly less bipartisan than men’s.
Finally, we investigated the number of amendments members of Congress offered and on which they demanded a vote. Because members often offer amendments as a tactical maneuver to delay the legislative process, women should offer fewer amendments subject to roll-call votes than their male colleagues. But they don’t.
Jennifer L. Lawless
Former Brookings Expert
Commonwealth Professor of Politics - University of Virginia
Sean M. Theriault
Professor of government at The University of Texas at Austin; author of The Gingrich Senators: The Roots of Partisan Warfare in Congress.
We analyzed all 4,488 amendments that resulted in a roll-call vote from 1993-2014. And we uncover no evidence that women’s amendment activity is different from men’s. In all 22 comparisons (11 for each party), in no case—regardless of party—do women offer statistically fewer amendments that result in roll-call votes than men do.
In no way are we suggesting that electing more women doesn’t make a difference. It certainly does. Recent studies have found that women in Congress deliver more federal spending to their districts than their male colleagues do. They have greater success keeping their sponsored bills alive longer in the legislative process. They bring to Congress a greater sense of democratic legitimacy. And they are more likely than men to value and contribute to a collegial work environment.
But given the evidence that women and men do not govern in systematically different ways, we should be careful not to place heightened expectations on our female elected officials. Or to assume that an annual bipartisan softball game is all it takes for women to overcome the incorrigible congressional environment that makes it difficult for any factor to trump party in the legislative process. Otherwise, we are holding women to a standard that they’ll never be able to meet.