Senior Fellow at The Lugar Center
Jay Branegan is a Senior Fellow at The Lugar Center, where he works on arms control issues and the Center’s Bipartisan Governance Project. He served for 10 years as a Professional Staff Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was interviewed here by Kyle Tucker, an HLS student ambassador who is double majoring in International Studies and Slavic Languages & Cultures.
Kyle Tucker: I understand that the purpose of The Lugar Center is to promote political bipartisanship in an increasingly polarized world. I was wondering, what does this effort look like in the realm of arms control issues specifically?
Jay Branegan: When Senator Richard Lugar was alive, The Lugar Center served as a really good perch for him to give speeches and write Op Eds. When the personal one-on-one diplomacy between President Trump and Kim Jong-un seemed to be going someplace, Senator Lugar went to the Oval Office with Sam Nunn to talk about what lessons you could apply from the Nunn-Lugar program to denuclearize North Korea, should things ever get to that point. We've been still active in the active in the arms control field, primarily through a partnership we have with the Arms Control Association, which has been around Washington for a long time. We sponsor with them a Bipartisan Nuclear Policy Dialogue Project. It's a way to build up some expertise that has atrophied on Capitol Hill on arms control issues and nonproliferation issues. We do this on a bipartisan basis.
One of the realities of Washington is that Republicans generally aren't very interested in arms control and nonproliferation, something that was aggravated by President Trump's attitude toward international treaties in general. So for our work with the ACA—which historically has tended to be more patronized by Democrats—we bring Republican staffers into the fold. We have regular meetings in which we host experts from both sides—not polarizing experts, but responsible people from the left, responsible people from the right—to discuss issues like missile systems or new weapons systems, or nuclear nonproliferation or treaties. We also wrote occasionally in our blog on supporting the new START treaty, which Senator Lugar helped get through the Senate. It probably wouldn't have gotten through the Senate without Senator Lugar’s backing and support; he provided cover for enough Republicans to approve it. He really believed that it was a good treaty. And it wasn't clear whether Trump was going to abandon that treaty or not, but as soon as President Biden came in, they re-upped it right away.
KT: Despite the recent extension of the new START treaty with Russia under the Biden administration, the Russian government's current behavior signals the current administration will probably have a tough time furthering new arms-control agreements past New START, or past this five-year extension. Considering the still extant nuclear danger, how can, in your view, future arms control agreements with Russia move forward in the coming years?
JB: I think it's going to be a very tough thing to get through. Any treaty needs the support of Republicans, who don't seem to be inclined to do it. And Russia's interference in the 2016 election and the 2020 election, along with their human rights abuses of Navalny, have really lessened the enthusiasm that even Democrats might have to cut a deal with Russia right now. The reason that the Biden administration extended the new START treaty was because they thought it was in our national interest and they were able to do without Congress. But I think that it'll be up to the Biden administration or their successor to try and find areas of mutual interest and work on it.
Senator Lugar was always of the view that negotiating for an arms control treaty can be very contentious, but once you have an arms control regime in place, it's actually a source of stability for the relationship. So I think you have to play for the long game and hope that in negotiations and talking about arms control you can find some area of common ground and take incremental steps. A really big global deal, on the other hand, is going to be very difficult to achieve in this current environment. But I think you have to keep sort of plugging away and hope for the best over the long term.
KT: What do you think explains a lot of the reluctance on Capitol Hill for these arms control agreements? Is it Congress members thinking that they'll look weak if they do an arms control agreement? What explains a lot of the reluctance that we see a lot of members of Congress show?
It’s partly just the polarization that we've seen in politics generally. There was a time when there would be a lot of debate over arms control agreements like START 1 and START 2, and they would end up passing with very comfortable majorities. They would get something like 90 or 93 votes in the Senate. Now, the situation has deteriorated such that two thirds is really a difficult thing to get. You need 66 votes, which is a very difficult hurdle especially in this polarized environment. I think that you’ll find that it's easier for a Republican president to get an arms control deal through than a Democratic one in normal times, because once a Democrat proposes it, then the Republicans get lined up lockstep against it. If the Republicans propose it, then Democrats will generally be in favor of it, as when George W. Bush easily got the Moscow treaty through. And he got that with complete Democratic support. Whereas Trump made no effort and was very hostile to any international agreements, trade agreements, etc. So he made it even harder for Republicans in the current environment to sign on to arms-control agreements
KT: In my studies, I've noticed that trend, too. I always thought it was remarkable when I read that President Nixon was able to go forward on so many arms-control issues and reopen negotiations with China, despite the fact that in Congress he was one of the most anti-communist legislators.
JB: Yes, that’s Nixon. Only Nixon could have gone to China. And if it had been a Democratic president, Richard Nixon would have been on the ramparts yelling and screaming about selling out to the Red Chinese.
KT: So taking into account the increasing politicization of foreign policy and foreign affairs, are there any other programs that the Lugar Center is doing to combat that?
JB: Our main work is talking about bipartisanship in Congress through the Bipartisan Index. This is an attempt to encourage members from both sides of the aisle to work together on sponsoring and co-sponsoring legislation. A lot of foreign policy around the edges has to do with Congress and legislation: human rights legislation, sanctions legislation, various trade agreements, things like that which have something to do with foreign policy. Much of foreign policy, though, is conducted through the executive branch, and Congress doesn’t have as much influence over that aspect of foreign policy.
KT: I'm curious how you and the team at the Lugar Center formulate the Bipartisan Index each year. How is that conducted? And do you ever get any interesting reactions from members of Congress as a result of being ranked a certain way?
JB: We do get a lot of very interesting reactions. We get reactions all the time. Basically, we do an objective and non-partisan evaluation of every bill that comes before Congress. If you look at other rating systems of how liberal or conservative a Member is, or how much somebody supports a position, those are usually scored bills, i.e., they look at how particular bills were voted on. For example, the Chamber of Commerce will announce they’re going to score a particular bill. If you vote for that bill you'll get a plus in their column, if you vote against that bill you'll get a negative in their column. We don’t do that. We look at every single bill that comes through except for routine bills—like post office namings and commemorations—and we give credit for legislators in both the House and the Senate who introduce a bill that attracts co-sponsorship from the other side, and we also give credit for any time a member will cross the aisle and agree to co-sponsor a bill that was introduced by a member of the other party. The strength of this is that it's pretty objective and it's pretty comprehensive. We don't pick and choose and we don't judge the quality, i.e., whether it's a good or bad bill. As a result, we do get a lot of reaction, especially from Members who do well. They are very eager to tout their bipartisan bona fides. They issue press releases, and they give interviews in their local press about it. We don't get too much reaction from people who score negatively. Most people who score negatively don't want to call attention to it. We originally thought that we might get some more reaction from people who scored near the bottom, that they might wear their low score as a badge of honor in such a partisan atmosphere. But that generally doesn't happen.
There are times where those who have scored negatively find it's being used against them in political races and in advertisements. For example, there was once a primary in Maryland for an open Senate seat between two liberal Democrats both from the Washington suburbs. Their policies were pretty much the same but one of them had a really bad score in the most recent bipartisan index before that race. In the last week of the campaign, her opponent took out a big ad highlighting this low score and said, “this person won’t be able to get anything done in Congress because she doesn't play well with others.” So, occasionally it's used in that way. But it's generally used in a positive way. We get calls from congressional offices wanting to understand better how the index works and what their bosses can do to improve their scores. And we say, “act in a more bipartisan way!” We’ve had very few challenges to the methodology. We worked hard with political scientists and some computer whizzes at Georgetown to develop it. And very few people have really said it isn’t fair. They might not like it, but they just usually keep quiet.
KT: When I was doing research for this interview, I came across a blog post from The Lugar Center from January, where the center's annual Bipartisan Index cannot always account for all actions of legislators. And you point to the different reactions of Liz Cheney, who I believe scored very low on the Bipartisan Index, and Elise Stefanik, who scored quite high, despite the fact that Liz Cheney is anti-Trump, voted for Trump's impeachment, and is against challenging the results of the 2020 election. Considering the events of [late spring] when Ms. Cheney was pushed out of her leadership position in the Republican Party and Congress in place of Stefanik, it really struck me that perhaps it might seem that these older definitions of partisanship can't be used to explain every reaction in the current political situation. Do you have any additional insights explaining this realignment, perhaps, or the future of partisanship in Congress?
JB: I think realignment is a little too strong. Partisanship has different definitions, and I think that's really what you're seeing. Our definition is particular to our index, and we picked that for a variety of reasons. We think it's good for what it shows, but we don't think that it's the only possible way to measure bipartisanship. We think one of the strengths of our index is that it's objective and it's easily quantifiable: you can actually document every single bill sponsored and introduced in Congress. Of course there are other aspects of bipartisanship, for example, how civil you are, or how courteous you are. I cut my teeth as a journalist in Chicago, where Mayor Daley was the leader of the Democratic machine for decades. He used to say that he had opponents, not enemies. And I think that's what gave him the ability to get things done. There was a time when you might disagree with your opponent, but you didn't portray them as evil, and I think that's the breakdown in bipartisanship. Now, if you disagree with me, you’re an evil person.
I think another aspect of the lack of bipartisanship is there doesn't seem to be any sense that people want to get consensus behind a position. They are quite happy to have their position justified by 50.1%. Senator Lugar always wanted bipartisanship on his bills and his legislation whenever he could because he felt it would have a more lasting impact. If you have a narrow, partisan victory in something, the next time there's a shift in the political wind or change in Congress or the White House, it can be easily undone. If you write a bill and reach a consensus that has significant support from both sides, it's a lot harder to undo it down the road because both sides have members that are invested in it. The other thing is that it used to be that the parties were more diverse ideologically, and so there was a lot more room for disagreement within parties. Now, the Republican Party, and the Democratic Party to a lesser degree, have become more purified and therefore it's much more difficult to oppose positions within your party, as Liz Cheney did. For Liz Cheney, it's a matter of principle, it doesn't seem like just naked political advantage; she really feels strongly about something yet she's been ostracized from the party and from the leadership for that. On the other hand, Mitt Romney in the Senate, has a little more leeway. Romney has said many of the same things, but he hasn't been quite so openly castigated. I think the House is more polarized though. We found a statistic that in 1996, 35 members of the Senate represented states that were won by the opposing party's presidential nominee, so, roughly 1/3 of the Senate. Today, there are just six. And that has been a steady decline over the years - every two years or so, there's a tick down in the number of senators who represent a state that was won by the opposing presidential nominee. So it's very difficult to govern when you have this rigid partisanship on both sides of the aisle.
KT: In terms of solving this partisan crisis, is there anything that citizens themselves can do? Obviously, we want legislators to vote or act in a more bipartisan manner, but is there any citizen activism to be done?
JB: It's an interesting phenomenon. If you look at the polls, while people give really bad grades to Congress in general—they think Washington is terrible, that Congress is terrible—they tend to give really good grades to their own congressmen. Often when we write about this at The Lugar Center, we come down to the idea that well, it’s the voters’ fault: the voters got the government that they deserve, and they could change their behavior. But that's almost like blaming the victim. I think there are things voters could do, like supporting efforts to get rid of gerrymandering, for instance. It’s been done by referendum in California. If you used objective re-districting commissions, it would make some of these districts a lot more competitive and therefore force people into the center. Another thing voters could do is support campaign-finance reform. That's a big thing in Washington, but something that doesn’t often register with voters. But because there is no campaign finance reform, big money can come in and fight citizens’ efforts to rein in spending. It’s kind of a chicken and egg situation. How do you get money out of politics if there's so much money in politics to fight efforts to get money out of politics?
Another thing is ranked-choice voting. That’s actually fairly popular with voters. Voters like it because they can vote for a candidate that they believe in without feeling that they're wasting their vote by voting for someone who doesn't have a chance to win. With rank choice, you can still vote for your favorite candidate and also make sure you're not wasting your vote because you can put a second or third choice. Ranked voting also encourages candidates to come to the center because they don't want to just appeal to their partisans; they want to be the second choice of as many voters as they can, too. Consequently, they need to broaden their appeal. In a conventional primary, you win by being the most partisan candidate, and then you try to tack back to the center for the for the general election. In a deep blue or deep red district, that doesn't really matter—the race is over once the primary is over. So I think with ranked-choice voting, it gives more incentive to be bipartisan.
KT: How have your past working experiences—working as a journalist at TIME and the Chicago Tribune, then with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—shaped how you view the issues that The Lugar Center deals with?
JB: As a journalist, you're trained to be nonpartisan, right? To look at both sides of the issue, to be skeptical of either side or all three or four sides of whatever issue you're dealing with, so you already have a kind of a nonpartisan approach, even though I have certain beliefs and I vote. As a journalist you consider, why do people disagree with me? What are they seeing that I'm not seeing? I always tried to make sure that I understood really well the position of the other side and why they felt that way. In fact, one of the reasons I went into journalism is because I figured that a lot of disagreement was because people didn't have enough facts. I thought journalists could be useful in getting the facts out and then people would have a lot less to disagree about. Starting in a nonpartisan career, working at a nonpartisan think tank that promotes bipartisanship was a fairly easy step for me.
Secondly, in my long experience with journalism, I became familiar with a lot of the issues that are here in Washington. I covered the court system in Chicago, both local and federal, for five years. Later I covered several agencies in Washington: the Pentagon, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department, Transportation Department, the Treasury, the Fed, the IMF, and the World Bank. And I was a foreign correspondent for 10 years, so I covered a lot of foreign policy issues. I also covered the White House for three years under Clinton. So I was pretty familiar with all the different arguments that are going on here in Washington. I think that gave me a sense of how issues are being played, what issues are important, how to frame issues, and how to understand issues that come before the Lugar Center.
KT: At IU and at the Hamilton Lugar School especially, Senator Lugar was a very dear member of our community. Do you have a favorite fond memory of the senator you'd like to share?
JB: I have two favorite memories I’ll share here. Senator Lugar was a great guy, a great man, but he wasn't a real colorful character. Part of his charm was that he was a pretty normal, sane guy. He was a very moderate man in many ways.
One thing I remember was when he became the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the second time, in 2003. One of his goals at that time was to get a State Department authorization bill through. For a variety of reasons, but it never got passed year after year, so every year the State Department kind of limped along on continuing resolutions. But Senator Lugar thought it was important to get this through so he hired all the right people and we worked really hard on it. This may sound very wonky from the outside, but from the inside, it was a very important thing for Senator Lugar. Finally, the bill was on the floor of the Senate and it looked like it was going to pass. At the same time, Teddy Kennedy, who had been trying for several years to get a bill passed to raise the federal minimum wage, couldn't get a vote on his bill because the Republican leadership (Bill Frist) in the Senate wouldn't let him. And when you have a bill that you see is going to go through, then you can put your own bill on it—an amendment, basically—but the rules of the Senate are such that if the leadership doesn't like the amendments, they can pull the whole bill down. And Senator Lugar knew that if Teddy Kennedy put his minimum wage amendment on this bill, then Frist would pull the bill and it wouldn't even get a vote. So here's this nice, kindly looking fellow with his white-gray hair, Senator Lugar, making a very impassioned speech, basically talking directly to Teddy Kennedy across the floor saying, “Please, Senator, take don't attach the minimum wage bill to my bill. Please don't do it. I fully sympathize with you, you're absolutely right, you should have a vote on your bill. And I would support any effort to have you get a vote on some other vehicle of your bill” etc. He was so passionate about this very bureaucratic thing. And like I said, he was normally a very calm, thoughtful guy. And Teddy Kennedy, himself a routinely passionate speaker, argued back. And so here are these two lions of the Senate having this really interesting colloquy over a seemingly simple, procedural thing. In the end, Teddy Kennedy put on his amendment, and Bill Frist, even though he was in Senator Lugar’s party, pulled down the bill and we never got the vote on that State Department authorization. It was a really remarkable moment.
Another memorable moment was after Senator Lugar left the Senate and was at the Lugar Center. He was invited to give a speech and take some questions at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, SAIS. He was invited by a group of SAIS Filipino graduate students, who fondly looked up to Senator Lugar after he had helped get rid of dictator Ferdinand Marcos back in the 1980s, though he hadn't recently been involved with Filipino matters too much in the years prior to this event. So we helped him prepare his speech, and after his speech we expected a few questions from the students. At the same time, however, there were some journalists from a Hong Kong television station there, and we knew they were not going to be asking warm and fuzzy questions. At the time there was quite a controversy over China in the South China Sea, and the Philippines were involved, but it wasn't an issue that we had briefed Senator Lugar about before the meeting. This wasn’t supposed to be that kind of event. But sure enough, this journalist raised his hand and asked a very tough question about the South China Sea and the Philippines, trying to get a news story, trying to cause some controversy. And the younger staffer with Senator Lugar was pretty worried! But Senator Lugar handled it like a pro. He gave a nice, solid answer, not directly answering the question, but enough to look like he was, and he glided on through it, completely unfazed by this gotcha question from this aggressive (though, properly so!) television reporter. And I remember saying to the other staffer later, don’t worry, Senator Lugar knows how to handle himself. He was very good on his feet and could really handle complex issues very deftly. It was pretty hard to throw Senator Lugar off his game.