Bipartisanship Requires Hard Work and Political Will

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

The recent "bipartisan" health-care forum was mostly a display of two sides talking past one another. Former Congressman Lee Hamilton says that it was a lesson in why "Bipartisanship Requires Hard Work and Political Will."

After seven hours together at their recent health-care forum, President Obama, congressional Democrats and congressional Republicans emerged no closer to an agreement than when they started. It was as fine a tutorial as you could want on why true bipartisanship is so elusive. 

There's no question that some substantive issues stand in the way of a bipartisan consensus on health care. As The New York Times editorialized the following day, "The main lesson...is that differences between Democrats and Republicans are too profound to be bridged." Each side took pains to lay out its thinking, with plenty of details and ideas to back them up. Yet what was missing was the most important detail of all: the political will necessary to overcome partisan differences and strike an accord together. Intense partisanship has become the norm on Capitol Hill. 

Partisanship is not all bad. It can drive a healthy search for alternative policy ideas and ensure that a diversity of voices exists in Congress, helping its members represent different constituencies across the land rather than some inside-the-Beltway consensus. 

But partisanship can also go too far, degenerating into polarization and gridlock, and undercutting efforts to make meaningful progress on important issues. 

The partisanship we see on Capitol Hill these days represents the failure of what I think of as the "Shakespeare Rule": To thine own self be true. Congress is made up of 535 individuals representing an extraordinarily diverse array of constituencies; it's unlikely that hundreds of them all think identically. So when a party votes unanimously on anything, the only conclusion we can draw is that some of its members are putting party loyalty ahead of their own judgment. Even worse, some have decided to vote the party line even when that vote is repugnant to them. 

Congress is not wholly partisan — there have been some recent encouraging signs, such as the willingness of a few Republican senators to join with Democrats in ending debate on a jobs bill — but all too often it looks like the health-care forum: lots of heated discussion, but no will to set aside differences and negotiate seriously. 

Pursuing bipartisanship requires far more than simply talking about finding common ground. It means seeking a fundamentally different attitude, asking people to help make the country work rather than trying to score political points. 

That is why bipartisanship is often praised but only rarely pursued. It demands that both sides believe it is better to reach an agreement than to fail to reach an agreement. And it does not consist of one side simply inviting the other to see the wisdom of its proposals — as is often the case with presidents, who tend to interpret "bipartisanship" as an invitation to accept their programs. Rather, it means an honest effort by members of both parties to find common ground and build on it. 

This requires hard work. Seeking bipartisan agreement means not just taking the time to listen to the other side; it also means really understanding their point of view and finding ways of incorporating at least some of it into your own thinking. 

It means identifying the critical issues and the facts that underlie them, and then making proposals that address them directly — not proposals that appear magnanimous but in fact don't get to the core problems. 

Perhaps above all, it means not exaggerating disagreements for political gain, but instead assessing realistically where differences lie and then coming up with pragmatic and serious approaches to bridging them. 

Our history is full of examples of what can happen when this process works, from Social Security and the GI Bill to food stamps, Medicare and welfare reform. But it is equally full of failures — cases in which a few people on each side who approached an issue in good faith were undermined by those at the table who saw greater gain in not finding agreement, or instances in which neither party could surmount their short-term political calculations and enter negotiations hell-bent on finding agreement. 

For in the end, that's what it takes: an attitude that agreement is the chief goal and that the job of the politician is to make the country work. Politicians love to praise bipartisanship and bemoan its lack. They're less willing to own up to how often they don't actually want it, much less how hard they'll have to work to achieve it. Until they do, any "bipartisan" forum we see will be so in name only. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)