Can Al Franken's Secret Santa exchange cure the Senate?

Story highlights

  • Many senators take part in a gift exchange but two political scientists say it doesn't fulfill goal of increasing good relations in Senate
  • Senators mostly vote based on the partisan makeup of their states and election results, authors say

Jennifer L. Lawless, a professor of government at American University, is the co-author of "Running from Office: Why Young Americans Are Turned Off to Politics." Sean Theriault is a professor of government at The University of Texas at Austin and author of "The Gingrich Senators: The Roots of Partisan Warfare in Congress." The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.

(CNN)Last week, the United States Senate held what has become an annual tradition: the Secret Santa gift exchange. And as has been the case in years past, the participants told us that it can cure what ails Congress.

Sean Theriault
Jennifer Lawless
Initiated by Democratic Sen. Al Franken in 2011 as a strategy to combat rampant partisanship, the activity regularly elicits some of the broadest bipartisan language heard on Capitol Hill. Franken describes the gift exchange as a way to "create comity and good cheer in an institution badly in need of both."
Republican Sen. Tim Scott says the gifts can be a way "to sweeten the pot and improve the relationships; to get across the aisle." Independent Sen. Angus King looks forward to the yearly festivities because the event gives senators "a chance to cut through the clutter, spend time together and have a laugh. If you ask me, we could use more of that kind of bipartisanship around here."
    There's no question that such good cheer and comity in the Senate is sorely needed. Congressional approval hovers at around 10%. In head-to-head matchups, cockroaches, head lice, colonoscopies and root canals are more popular than Congress. And nearly 50% of voters believe that "if members of Congress were replaced with random people walking down the street," those everyday Americans could do a better job handling the country's problems.
    Any attempt -- including Franken's -- to cut through the gridlock, stalemate and hyperpartisanship might be considered time well spent. Of course, a precondition for meeting the aspirations of the annual holiday tradition is that senators actually participate. The gift exchange signals a proclivity to take the first step that might be necessary to restore problem solving to a Congress long plagued by polarization and partisan warfare.
    So, who shows up and who doesn't? We collected information on Secret Santa attendance dating back to the tradition's inception. Female senators are roughly 50% more likely than their male colleagues to participate. In 2014, for example, 12 women and 22 men took part. That amounts to 60% of the women in the Senate, but only 27% of men.
    Democrats are more likely than Republicans to participate (43% compared to 27% in years past). And "Gingrich Senators" -- those Republicans who first served in the House after Newt Gingrich introduced his divisive partisan politics to the chamber -- are among those least likely to exchange gifts (just three of the 22 Gingrich senators attended last year).
    Of the 2016 presidential contenders, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have participated twice in recent years. Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders haven't taken part.
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    But does participation really generate good will for the legislative process? If it does, then we should see it borne out in how senators navigate the procedures surrounding the legislative process in Congress. Procedural votes are frequently used to obstruct legislation, stymie debate or alter the normal amending process.
    Members who are "problem solvers" should be more inclined than those who are not to vote with colleagues across the aisle on procedural votes, since doing so moves the process along and generates 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).
    Well, we also collected information about the votes senators cast dating back to 2011. And the results suggest it's unlikely the senators' good cheer and comity last for more than an afternoon.
    Based on an analysis of the 319 procedural votes senators cast from 2011 through 2014, we found that those who participated in the Secret Santa tradition were no more likely to engage in the legislative activities that lead to genuine problem solving on the Senate floor. They were just as likely to play the procedural games that so easily stymie the legislative process in the Senate. We also found, based on an analysis of 471 floor amendments, that Secret Santa participants were just as likely as nonparticipants to offer divisive amendments whose aims were political rather than legislative.
    The upshot of our analysis is that the partisan composition of the state, coupled with senators' electoral margins in their previous elections, determine how they vote and the extent to which they cooperate and collaborate with each other. And this is true for both Democrats and Republicans. The notion that senators who value some degree of comity are more likely than those who don't to be "problem solvers" who vote with members of the other party when it comes to moving the legislative process forward simply does not hold water.
    As concerned citizens, we share Franken's hope that events like the Secret Santa can help the Senate build the connections necessary to restore the bonds needed for true problem solving on Capitol Hill. And we support any efforts that can help restore the public's trust in our political leaders and institutions.
    But as political scientists, we can't help but conclude that the good cheer generated from the Secret Santa dissipates shortly after the senators -- at least those who showed up -- finish their eggnog. While a functioning Congress that solves problems may be on all our Christmas lists, even Santa Claus -- secret or not -- would have a hard time in one afternoon removing the disharmony, discord and distrust that have taken generations of senators to build.