Why bipartisanship can't work: the expert view

I got this note from someone with many decades' experience in national politics, about a discussion between two Congressmen over details of the stimulus bill:

"GOP member: 'I'd like this in the bill.'

"Dem member response: 'If we put it in, will you vote for the bill?'

"GOP member:  'You know I can't vote for the bill.'

"Dem member:  'Then why should we put it in the bill?'

"I witnessed this myself."

I wrote back saying, "Great story!" and got the response I quote below and after the jump. It is worth reading because its argument has the valuable quality of being obvious -- once it is pointed out. The emphasis is mine rather than in the original; it is to highlight a basic structural reality that has escaped most recent analysis of the "bipartisanship" challenge.

"BTW, that exchange I quoted is not really a great story.  It is a basic story, fundamental to legislation -- a sort of 'duh!' moment -- and to the US Congressional system, and to the key difference between our system and a parliamentary system when it comes to bipartisanship. I'm astonished every pundit doesn't already get it, but many either don't or seem willfully to ignore it.  

"In our system, if the minority party can create and enforce party discipline (which has never really been done before, but which the GOP has now accomplished), then OF COURSE there can be no 'bipartisanship' on major legislative matters, in the sense of (1) the minority adding provisions to legislation as the majority compromises with them, and (2) at least some minority party members then voting with the majority. 
"In a parliamentary system, the minority party is not involved in helping write or voting for major legislation either.  If you think about it, and as that exchange I quoted shows, that sort of 'bipartisanship' really can't happen in a parliamentary system on issues where the minority party has the power to tell its members to boycott the majority's major bills on final passage.

"Bipartisanship in the American sense means compromising on legislation so that a sufficient number of members of Congress from BOTH parties will support it, even if (as is typically the case) a few majority party members defect and most minority party members don't join.  Bipartisanship consists of getting ENOUGH members of the minority party to join the (incomplete) majority in voting for major legislation.  It can't happen if the minority party members vote as a block against major legislation.  And that can happen only if the minority party has the ability to discipline its ranks so that none join the majority, which is the unprecedented situation we've got in Congress today.

"The way parliamentary parties maintain their discipline is straightforward.  No candidate can run for office using the party label unless the party bestows that label upon him or her.  And usually, the party itself and not the candidate raises and controls all the campaign funds.  As every political scientist knows, the fact that in the U.S. any candidate can pick his or her own party label without needing anyone else's approval, and can also raise his or her own campaign funds, is why there cannot be and never really has been any sustained party discipline before -- even though it is a feature of parliamentary systems.

"The GOP now maintains party discipline by the equivalent of a parliamentary party's tools:  The GOP can effectively deny a candidate the party label (by running a more conservative GOP candidate against him or her), and the GOP can also provide the needed funds to the candidate of the party's choice.  And every GOP member of Congress knows it.  (Snowe and Collins may be immune, but that's about it.)

"I've missed almost all the punditry this past week... but what I've seen seems almost like a lot of misleading fluff designed to fill the void that should follow an understanding of the foregoing, at least on the subject of 'why no bipartisanship?'  There's really nothing more to be said about "why no bipartisanship," once one recognizes the GOP party discipline.  On this issue, it's absolutely astounding to blame Obama or even the Congressional leadership (although Pelosi and Reid leave much to be desired otherwise).  It's doubly astounding that the GOP did it once before, less perfectly, but with a very large reward for bad behavior in the form of the 1994 mid-term elections.  Yet no one calls them on it effectively, and bad behavior seems about to be rewarded again...

"Ironically, the one thing that might lubricate some bipartisanship -- earmarks, or their functional equivalent in specific amendments of general policy -- is becoming unavailable just when needed, and when it might help.  After the exchange I quoted (and observed), a Dem could run against that GOP incumbent by pointing out that the GOP opponent lost X or Y or Z project or policy benefit for his or her district or state by insisting on voting down the line with the GOP.  'Put his party above his constituents,' might be the charge, or 'Put Michael Steele above you and me.'  But so far, the Dems don't seem to have cottoned onto this.  They could go into the 2010 elections not just challenging the obstructionists in the GOP, but showing the electorate what the price of obstruction has been for real people back home." 

As I have pointed out a time or two or a thousand, the structural failures of American government are the country's main problem right now. In this installment, we see that the US now has the drawbacks of a parliamentary system -- absolute party-line voting by the opposition, for instance -- without any of the advantages, from comparable solidarity among the governing party to the principle of "majority rules." If Democrats could find a way to talk about structural issues -- if everyone can find a way to talk about them -- that would be at least a step. And the Dems could talk about the simple impossibility of governing when the opposition is committed to "No" as a bloc.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In