Point/Counterpoint: Bipartisanship sounds ideal, but its bargains are driving us to financial ruin

From the column: "For every fight that derails a controversial spending bill ... you’ll see trillions ... approved on a bipartisan basis. Yet, most of these dollars go to programs that shouldn’t have been approved in the first place."

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Bipartisanship is the solution to some problems, but it also helped create them. On the one hand, if you are a classical liberal with a strong preference for fiscal responsibility, bipartisanship generally gets you nowhere. Big Capitol Hill deals mean big spending. On the other hand, the only path to reforming the drivers of our current and future debt or making other important changes is through bipartisan agreement.

Most people have an unmixed love for bipartisanship. Who can blame them? It conjures ideas of collegiality and sensible legislators joining forces to get the job done harmoniously. After years of polarized politics bleeding into our personal lives, who doesn’t welcome collegiality? Besides, we have big problems that require big solutions that won’t be achieved without agreement across the aisle.

From the column: "The dirty little secret in Washington is that almost all legislation needs at least bipartisanship to pass — and even significant legislation often sails through unimpeded."

Think about it this way: The federal government’s debt is now $31 trillion . That’s 31 followed by 12 zeros. Because Uncle Sam has spent so much, he must borrow about as much wealth as we produce yearly. Unfortunately, however, that’s just the beginning. Even if no new programs are created, by 2040 our debt will be 132% the size of our gross domestic product, on its way to 185% in 2052.

It’s worth repeating that the primary drivers of our debt are Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. The Manhattan Institute’s Brian Riedl calculated that adding the spending on just these three programs to the interest we pay on the debt accounts for 86% of the growth of government spending between 2008 and 2032.

Republicans and Democrats have agreed to such large Medicare and Social Security benefits that, over the next 30 years, these two programs alone will confront a shortfall of $116 trillion. And sadly, for all the talk about congressional gridlock, there has been, and still is, a remarkable bipartisan refusal to do anything about it.


If you examine congressional spending objectively, you’ll see that bipartisanship is everywhere.

For every fight that derails a controversial spending bill like Build Back Better, you’ll see trillions of dollars approved on a bipartisan basis. Yet, most of these dollars go to programs that shouldn’t have been approved in the first place — handouts to special interests, functions that should be performed at the state level or by private actors, or programs that have been tried for years but have failed to deliver on their objectives.

The bottom line is that when I look at Congress’s performance over the years, all I see is a lot of bipartisanship agreements to add big expenses to Uncle Sam’s credit card, continue cronyism, and impose a bevy of regulations that meddle in our lives. Hence my skepticism about bipartisanship.

The complication is that we won’t get out of this mess without big reforms, which we’ll only get from bipartisanship. This is how we got some notable bipartisan successes, including welfare reform, balanced budgets, and fiscal reduction compromises like the 2011 Budget Control Act and the 2013 fiscal-cliff deal.

What would make for good bipartisan projects? The most pressing ones involve reforming Social Security and Medicare. These programs are not just insolvent, their trust funds are on pace to run out of assets within about a decade, leading to serious benefits cuts. While seniors today are overrepresented in the top income quintiles and many could handle the cuts, some are poor and depend on these programs. Congress needs to act fast, no matter what public opinion says.

There are also plenty of issues that could be taken on with the enthusiastic support of the American people. Immigration reform is one of them. Indeed, most Americans are favorable to immigrants and despondent about the current situation at the border. Congress needs to find a bipartisan solution to this issue.

It’s also time to end the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act requiring federal agencies to consider the environmental effects of their major actions. There is an enormous amount of literature showing that the NEPA’s enormous economic costs far exceed its environmental benefits while slowing down and even bringing to a halt the construction of infrastructure — including some environmentally friendly projects — that we badly need.

The country has so many problems these days that people who are ideologically separated by a fair amount should be able to find some agreement. In fact, they must. But bipartisanship is only as good as the bargains it produces.


Veronique de Rugy is the George Gibbs Chair in Political Economy and a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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Veronique de Rugy

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