A system of checks and balances functions best when people on opposite sides of an issue are capable of compromise. For the last decade, hyper-partisanship, not problem-solving, has characterized American governance.
Alice Rivlin, former director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton, described the consequences: “In this divided country, if two parties do not work together to find common ground, we are doomed to gridlock or wild swings in policy.” For example, bipartisan health care reform would have resulted in less uncertainty surrounding affordability and access and would have made it easier to amend laws when unintended consequences emerged.
If we are to meet the challenges of the 21st century, both parties will have to claim ownership of the solutions and be willing to share the gains and pains of changing the status quo. Centrists recognize this and are attempting to break down the barriers to bipartisan compromise.
The New Democrat Coalition was organized to support a moderate pro-growth agenda. The Republican Main Street Partnership has said, “It is time to get past partisan bickering and ideological rigidity.”
Yeoman’s work to find bipartisan solutions is being undertaken by No Labels and the Bipartisan Policy Council. No Labels proclaimed, “The far right and far left are holding America hostage and becoming even more strident, uncompromising and making governance impossible.” The Bipartisan Policy Council is attempting to combine the best ideas of both parties to promote balanced policymaking.
The achievement of bipartisan solutions is inhibited by the existing political process and a lack of political will. Chief executive leadership can help narrow partisan divides. One example is President Reagan’s leadership in securing the Tax Reform Act of 1986. Such leadership did not emanate from President Obama, and is no better under President Trump.
The failure of bipartisanship is not caused simply by the actions and rhetoric coming out of the White House, however. Elected officials who preach bipartisanship often find it difficult to work across the aisle due to a preoccupation with fundraising. As a result, the line separating campaigning and governing has blurred. Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, found, “The increasing incursion of campaigning in American democracy – the permanent campaign – encourages political attitudes and arguments that make compromise more difficult.”
In the never-ending campaign, positions harden, opponents are demonized, and donors exert influence. The advent of super PACs, 501c4s and 527 organizations produced money engines that make political compromise even more challenging.
In addition, the way presidents are currently nominated has weakened the ability to compromise. Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at Brookings, noted, “Primary races now tend to be dominated by highly motivated extremists and interest groups, with the perverse results of leaving moderates and broader, less well-organized constituencies underrepresented.” Today, what chance would Harry Truman or Dwight Eisenhower have to be the nominees of their party?
In some cases, well-intentioned reforms to make government more transparent may have unintended consequences. For example, public mark-up sessions may increase transparency, but at a cost. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle believes that “The lack of opportunities for honest dialogue and creative give and take lies at the root of today’s dysfunction.”
There is not a legislative solution to end hyper-partisanship or mandate a mindset to compromise. Revitalizing a political culture based on bipartisanship and getting to YES for the American people starts with rekindling a civic consciousness. This requires citizen involvement and participation in the political process.
The resistance to compromise is enhanced by how our political system currently functions. Two reforms that could help alleviate hyper-partisanship should be considered. Partisan gerrymandering protects incumbents and creates a bias favoring the maintenance of the status quo. Redistricting reforms can foster more representative districts, thus limiting the threat of special interests to primary incumbents they disagree with.
State political parties should be strengthened because they have the potential to be “big tent” political organizations that may counter well-financed super PACs and other organizations that take extremist positions.
At the end of the day no reform can substitute for recruiting strong leaders to run for office who will work with the other side, not focus on a single issue nor view elected office as a career.
Gary Sasse is the Director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University and previously was Director of the Rhode Island’s Departments of Revenue and Administration.