By: Craig Gilbert: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The most “bipartisan” congressman from Wisconsin, according to one recent study, is moderate Democrat Ron Kind of La Crosse.

Which makes sense politically, since his mostly rural district isn’t dominated by either major party. In fact, it’s the most competitive U.S. House seat in the state.

But the No. 2 Wisconsin lawmaker on the list doesn’t fit this pattern at all.

Republican Jim Sensenbrenner is nowhere near the middle politically (he ranks as one of the most conservative members of Congress). And he represents one of the state’s most politically one-sided districts, which includes the ultra-Republican outer suburbs of Milwaukee.

But Sensenbrenner, who has served longer than all but two U.S. House members, has forged coalitions with Democrats and liberals over the years on issues ranging from voting rights to criminal justice to the Patriot Act.

“It can be done,” says Dan Diller of the Lugar Center, which publishes a “Bipartisan Index” of Congress. The ratings are based on how often lawmakers introduce bills that attract co-sponsors from the opposing party, and how often they co-sponsor bills introduced by colleagues from the other party.

It’s just one of many ways to define bipartisanship, but it’s a concrete, quantifiable measure of the effort members make at the front end of the legislative process to work across party lines. That is a practice this particular nonprofit group is trying to promote, and one that some scholars say makes lawmakers more effective.

In the Lugar Center’s recent index for the 114th Congress (2015-'16), Kind ranked 19th among all House members, tops in the Wisconsin delegation. Sensenbrenner ranked 65th and Republican Reid Ribble (since retired) ranked 90th. Those were the state’s only three House members with positive scores.

Republican Sean Duffy ranked 250th, Democrat Mark Pocan 265th, Democrat Gwen Moore 355th and Republican Glenn Grothman 426th (placing Grothman second to last among the 427 House members who received a rating). The index does not include House speakers, so Republican Paul Ryan was not rated.

In the U.S. Senate, Republican Ron Johnson ranked 52nd and Democrat Tammy Baldwin ranked 75th.

The Lugar Center has published ratings for House members since 2013 and for senators since 1993.

Here are some highlights from the data:

  • Kind (18th) and Sensenbrenner (59th) also ranked highly for bipartisanship in the 113th Congress (2013-'14). Ryan, who had not yet become speaker, ranked a little below average in the House for bipartisanship (244th). And the lowest-ranked members from Wisconsin for this two-year period were Duffy (319th), Moore (376th) and Pocan (390th).
  • The Senate rankings suggest Johnson became much more bipartisan in the final two years of his first term than in his first four years. The Wisconsin Republican ranked 96th out of 98 ranked senators in 2011-'12 and 89th in 2013-'14 before rising to 52nd in 2015-'16. Democrat Baldwin, elected in 2012, ranked 77th in her first two years.
  • Wisconsin has seen some of its most bipartisan lawmakers leave Congress in recent years. Republican Tom Petri ranked among the top 5% of the House for bipartisanship before he retired at the end of 2014. Republican Ribble ranked in the top quarter of the House before he retired at the end of 2016. And Democrat Herb Kohl routinely ranked in the top half of the Senate before he retired at the end of 2012.

Not surprisingly, the long-term trend in the Lugar Center’s data is a decline in bipartisanship, which has coincided with the growing polarization of Congress along party lines.

The lawmakers who receive the highest ratings for bipartisanship tend to be those in the middle of the right-left spectrum. The most bipartisan senator in the latest index is moderate Republican Susan Collins of Maine, and the lowest ranked senators are Vermont’s Bernie Sanders on the left and Texan Ted Cruz on the right.

Among Wisconsin lawmakers, Kind is arguably the most centrist politically and ranks by this measure as the most bipartisan.

But bipartisanship and moderation are not the same thing. A legislator can be at the right or left end of the political spectrum and have a bipartisan working style at the same time.

“It’s possible for very conservative and very progressive members to work at this,” says Dillar, of the Lugar Center.

Sensenbrenner was among roughly 70 House members cited by the Lugar Center as scoring well for bipartisanship while representing a very one-sided district politically.

In the center’s latest index, Democrat Pocan and Republican Johnson both ranked fairly close to the middle of their chambers for bipartisanship, even though neither is remotely centrist. Pocan is more liberal than 96% of his House colleagues and Johnson is more conservative than 87% of his Senate colleagues, according to one highly respected rating system of ideology in Congress.

But only Kind and Sensenbrenner, among Wisconsin lawmakers still in office, got a positive rating for bipartisanship in the last Congress.

One is a centrist Democrat whose congressional district has voted for both Donald Trump and Barack Obama in recent years.

The other is a staunch conservative whose district often produces the top Republican turnouts in the country.

“Bipartisanship,” it seems, is practically the only thing they have in common politically.

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