Missouri has some of the most partisan lawmakers. One Rep. calls it a ‘badge of honor’

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Reality Check is a Star series holding those with power to account and shining a light on their decisions. Have a suggestion for a future story? Email our journalists at RealityCheck@kcstar.com.

Rep. Eric Burlison didn’t come to Washington to be bipartisan.

The Missouri Republican is a member of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus. He’s voted against bills to keep the government running and bills to provide aid to Ukraine. He recently voted against a motion to save House Speaker Mike Johnson – citing the fact that he couldn’t stomach voting with the Democrats.

“My voters, they want me to do what’s right,” Burlison told The Star. “They didn’t set me up here to do to just get along. They sent me up here to save America.”

In an era defined by partisan rancor, the lawmakers from Missouri are among the most partisan in Congress in 2023, according to a bipartisan index released by the Lugar Center at Georgetown University.

Missouri’s Senate delegation is the second most partisan in the country, after Alabama.

The most bipartisan House member from Missouri – Rep. Ann Wagner, a St. Louis County Republican – ranked 73rd out of the 436 representatives in the ranking. She was the only member from Missouri in the top 25%. Burlison and Rep. Cori Bush, a St. Louis Democrat, ranked 432 and 434 respectively.

The lack of bipartisanship among Missouri lawmakers reflects how politics in a state that correctly picked the winner in all but one presidential election between 1904 and 2004 have transformed over the last two decades.

But, particularly since the rise of Donald Trump, the state has been growing more polarized. The rural areas of the state are increasingly electing Republicans and the two largest cities are electing Democrats. Wagner’s 12-point win in the suburbs of St. Louis was the tightest Congressional victory in the state in 2022. Rep. Jason Smith, from Salem, won his congressional district by 54 percentage points that year.

Political scientists said that as congressional districts become more polarized, incentives shift for lawmakers. While there is evidence that bipartisanship helps in making policy – the Senate still often requires bipartisan votes to pass major legislation – it may not help with most elections.

When districts lean toward one political party, the biggest electoral hurdle becomes the primary election – which is composed of a more ideological and engaged electorate. While general election voters may be looking for candidates who are willing to work across party lines, primary voters often demand a more partisan ideology.

“What these Republicans and Democrats are worried about is probably the primary election, more than the general election,” said Steven Rogers, a political science professor at St. Louis University. “And so there’s probably not a strong incentive to be bipartisan if you’re trying to court the voters in your own camp.”

Sen. Eric Schmitt, a freshman Republican who faced a tougher election in his primary in 2022 than in the general election, was nonplussed by his bipartisan rating. Schmitt said he campaigned on fighting against the Biden administration’s policies.

“That’s never going to change,” Schmitt said. “That’s who I am. It doesn’t mean you can’t work with people and develop relationships. But yeah, I’m not going to sacrifice the core mission which is to protect their individual rights.”

The Lugar Center’s ranking is based on how many bipartisan bills are being sponsored and cosponsored by lawmakers. Dan Diller, the policy director at the Lugar Center, says it takes into account the average number of bipartisan bills sponsored by each lawmaker and how many cosponsors it attracts.

But several lawmakers pushed back on the ranking, saying it doesn’t account for all of the bipartisanship that goes on in Congress.

Sen. Josh Hawley said he’d put his legislative record up against any member of the Senate.

“Signing on your name to stuff is not legislating,” Hawley said. “I mean, that’s fine, and I certainly join bills I like, but that’s not legislating.”

Hawley was able to rattle off legislation he’s sponsored with Democrats.

Days before, he was able to secure an amendment in the bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, to guarantee automatic refunds for canceled flights. He’s also sponsored several bills focused on regulating technology companies and artificial intelligence with Senate Democrats, though they’ve struggled to gain traction in the Senate.

None of the bipartisan bills Hawley has sponsored this year show up on the bipartisan index, because it’s focused on 2023. But Diller said the index is an “antidote to the anecdotalism” lawmakers use when talking about bipartisanship.

“Almost every member has a couple of those things,” Diller said. “But what the bipartisan index does, is we have averages and standards. We know what an average Senator does in a given Congress. We know how many bills the average Senator should cosponsor from the other side, how many of their own bills get cosponsors from the other side.”

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, who ranked 339th, said he was disappointed he didn’t do well on the index, but took issue with how bipartisanship was measured.

“A large percentage of the bills introduced, their sponsor knows and understands clearly, there’s no ambiguity, he or she knows that is not gonna go anywhere,” Cleaver said. “It’s never gonna go to a committee. It’s not going to ever go to the Senate. It’s not going anywhere.”

He said he ranks highly when it comes to civility and recently resumed sending monthly “missives” to every member of Congress – the latest used a story about buzzards flying over rose gardens to remind members not to miss the commendable things in Washington in favor of the perceived rot.

But outside of the House Chamber on Wednesday evening, Burlison celebrated his partisan ranking. He called it a badge of honor.

“To me, I look at that list and I say, people at the top, probably part of the uniparty, what people from my district would say is part of the swamp,” Burlison said. “I’m the furthest away from the swamp that you can possibly get on that list.”