The noisy rub of grinding partisanship drowns out most other sounds on Capitol Hill these days. Controversies about congressional ethics and confirming judges not only threaten to jam the legislative gears but also fuel the media’s motor. Yet a closer peek under the lawmaking hood reveals a quietly humming bipartisan engine. Despite roaring hyperbole from some Democratic congressional leadership offices, a significant number of rank-in-file minority party members are joining Republicans to pass an impressive list of significant accomplishments.
So far this year in the House, 50 Democrats helped pass class action reform, 122 voted for congressional continuity, 42 joined in legislation repealing the death tax, 73 supported the bankruptcy bill, 42 Democrats broke ranks on the Real ID bill, and last week, 41 joined the Republicans on the final version of the energy bill.
This bipartisan “little engine that could” is gaining so much momentum that it’s causing certain Democrats to wrap common sense around their rhetorical axles. Nancy Pelosi’s spokesperson was quoted in this newspaper last week saying Republicans were trying to “distract” people by passing bipartisan bills — a novel interpretation of what others might consider laudable accomplishments.
Being “shut out of the process” or Republicans “abusing power” promoting an “extremist agenda” have been central lines in this year’s Democratic leadership’s political prose. Yet if the process is hopelessly flawed and ideologically unbalanced why are so many Democrats voting for this growing agenda of success? Part of the explanation is what political scientists call “hyper-pluralism.” A growing number of liberal interest groups join together and make rigid, uncompromising demands on lawmakers. These “demands” are not about supporting an alternative agenda, it’s all about opposition — all the time.
Hyper-pluralism begets extreme partisanship, meaning Democratic leaders get stuck in “just say no” speed. No matter what the issue, they oppose. And when they try to shift gears, like Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland recently did by supporting final passage of the bankruptcy bill, torrents of vitriol rain down upon them from interest groups, making breaking out of the opposition lock-step even more difficult next time.
Compromise may be the mother’s milk of the lawmaking process, but today’s opposition leaders believe it curdles fundraising appeals and sours the party base’s energy. Today’s Democratic leaders take their opposition role quite literally. They do what they think opposition leaders should do — “oppose,” always. And evidently the media thinks this continuing saga whets public interest.
But focusing exclusively on the rhetoric and voting patterns of Democratic leaders — as the media often does in writing the conflict story du jour — misses another significant development. For those not charged with daily maintenance of fanning the conflict flames, there are tremendous opportunities to shape public policy. Democratic rank-in-file lawmakers are not politically tone-deaf to their constituents’ aversion to constant bickering; their leadership’s one-note sonata is beginning to grate. That’s why the list of bipartisan accomplishments in the House is expanding.
The major pieces of legislation passed in the House so far this year on legal reform, energy, taxes and congressional continuity are not — as some in the Democratic leadership argue — part of an “extreme right wing agenda.” An average of 62 Democrats joined with the Republicans to pass the six bills referenced above.
Rank-in-file Democrats with reasonable ideas aimed at improving the legislative product, as opposed to bogging down the process or embarrassing Republicans, will have numerous opportunities to play a constructive role. Reasonable Democrats should not miss this chance to put their mark on public policy.
The next big test is the Central American Free Trade Agreement. The question is: Will the “little engine that could” continue to hum along and will a significant number of Democrats support this legislation promoting economic growth and open markets? Or will they succumb to the fear tactics and threats of leaders more interested in party discipline and consolidating power?
Clearly, Republicans will be open to accommodate reasonable Democrat amendments and ideas. After all, passing legislation with 40-60 Democrats is in Republicans’ long-term political interest as well. The question is how many Democrats will reject mere nay saying and seize the opportunity to lubricate the engine of bipartisan success.