Reflexive Bipartisanship Is Just as Problematic as Obstruction

In fact, both impulses share the same flaw: too little emphasis on doing what is right.

congress.banner.reuters.jpg

Reuters

Writing in the Washington Post last week, Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann blasted Republicans, who they dub "the problem" in America, calling GOP legislators "ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition." Conceding that the GOP is often awful, consider the shortcomings of the centrist bipartisanship the authors recommend.

"Democrats were not exactly warm and fuzzy toward George W. Bush during his presidency," they write. "But recall that they worked hand in glove with the Republican president on the No Child Left Behind Act, provided crucial votes in the Senate for his tax cuts, joined with Republicans for all the steps taken after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and supplied the key votes for the Bush administration's financial bailout at the height of the economic crisis in 2008. The difference is striking."

What strikes me about that list is how much better off America would be if the Democrats had refused to help pass No Child Left Behind and its counterproductive regime of standardized tests; if they'd opposed deficit-exploding tax cuts while America financed two wars with borrowed money; if they'd opposed the civil liberties-infringing parts of the Patriot Act; and if they'd at minimum made bailout money contingent on the immediate end of "too big to fail" banks. Why should Democrats be credited with helping a bad president from the other party to pass wrongheaded policies that most people in their own party correctly regard as having made us worse off?

That is discrediting.

A lot of America's worst policies are bipartisan. Democrats and Republicans cooperated to get us into Iraq; they stand together in the War on Drugs; they are complicit in imprisoning a higher percentage of the citizenry than other free countries; they support agricultural subsidies that are costly for consumers and ruinous for Third World farmers; they've brought into being a tax code larded up with complexity that benefits wealthy individuals and corporations who can find the loopholes; they can't agree on something as obvious as implementing more severe restrictions on antibiotics in factory farming to protect the efficacy of those vital medicines for human use.

Opposition for its own sake -- the GOP has engaged in a lot of that since 2008 -- is in fact lamentable and ruinous to good government. So is reflexive bipartisanship. Deciding to reject or support legislation for the purpose of thwarting or compromising with other legislators is problematic for the same reason: votes ought to be decided on the merits of a given policy proposal.

Otherwise policy drifts in the direction of what is deemed "reasonable" or "mainstream" at a given moment. Right now, for example, a plurality of voters subscribe to the mainstream idea that we should bomb Iran, while the centrists in Congress believe that the secret, extrajudicial assassination of American citizens by the president of the United States is perfectly legal and desirable. The authors conclude by urging voters to give the parties "some impetus to return to the center." I'd urge voters to elect more members of Congress eager to advance sound policies regardless of who gets credit for them, and immoderately zealous in their insistence that civil liberties be protected; war be avoided when possible; and Madisonian checks and balances be restored.

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

Just In