Point/Counterpoint: Bipartisanship sounds ideal but the US better for its checks and balances
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."
Old habits die hard, as the saying goes. But myths and legends do, too, as Hunter S. Thompson famously said .
When it comes to government, there is one idea that endures despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It is that bipartisanship is inherently good but essentially dead in our polarized times.
While many lament a lack of respect among political actors and argue that progress is often not possible with ideologically homogeneous political parties, there are many reasons this is not the case.
For one, political debates in Washington have always been contentious, and a supposed “ golden age ” of bipartisanship never truly existed. What’s more, Congress continues to come together on the most substantial pieces of legislation , difficult as it may be. Not to mention, it’s at best unclear that more bipartisanship would lead to better political outcomes.
Toxic partisanship is hardly a new phenomenon. The first negative campaign is widely accepted to be the 1800 presidential race between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, a battle rife with epithets, slurs, and shady campaign tactics that make today’s contests look tame by comparison.
Though much was made recently of screaming on the House floor and a near physical attack by Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Alabama, during the speaker debate, even this incident pales in comparison to past episodes , like the caning of Sen. Charles Sumner, R-Massachusetts.
Regardless of how members act toward one another, the reality is that the body is as active and vibrant as ever. One recent analysis found that, during the last session, Congress “enacted more than 200 laws , at least 150 of which are significant.” While the number of passed laws is trending downward over time, the rise of omnibus bills bundling together various priorities means that Congress is essentially doing just as much as ever.
An irony is that, as the control in Congress becomes more tenuous with smaller majorities, the need for bipartisanship has never been greater. 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.
Consider the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual bill that determines the Pentagon’s spending level. For at least the last decade, its passage has been contentious , yielding a battle between foreign policy hawks and members from both parties who wished to curb military spending. Yet despite some threats in December, the latest NDAA passed the House under suspension , an expedited process only possible when a bill has supermajority support.
It’s not only in national defense where bipartisanship still reigns supreme. Federal spending continues to accelerate across the board, despite frequently divided government and a supposed lack of bipartisanship. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, relief packages were approved with near-unanimous support, often even without individual votes being taken. When a true emergency struck, an agreement was widespread and partisanship was hard to find.
More recently, the Democratic Congress passed the $1.7 trillion consolidated appropriations bill during the lame-duck session with a smattering of Republican votes. The last session also found bipartisan support for many other Biden administration priorities, including the infrastructure deal, the CHIPS and PACT acts, and various aid packages to Ukraine .
It is no doubt true that partisanship can be toxic and get in the way of progress from time to time. But recent frustrations with partisanship reflect as much an inability to build majority coalitions as they do inherent problems with the system.
Washington was meant to move slowly. Indeed, the Founders designed it that way. As James Madison famously wrote in Federalist 51 , checks and balances were implemented to ensure that ambition “counteracts ambition,” and legislative action was only meant to occur in instances of widespread agreement. And even these protections have made desirable political outcomes hard to come by — thanks in part to too much bipartisanship.
Bipartisan agreements on Pentagon spending have increased that department’s budget to record levels , often funding systems our top military brass don’t want or need . Recent bipartisan spending has helped fuel inflation and expanded the national debt to its highest level in history. And who can forget the bipartisan consensus that kept American troops in Afghanistan for more than two decades ?
Before we heed calls for more bipartisanship, we should recognize that it continues as strong as ever, and more might not be as good as it sounds.
Jonathan Bydlak is director of the Governance Program at the R Street Institute (rstreet.org), a nonpartisan, center-right think tank in Washington, D.C.