- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2006

When the 110th Congress convenes in January, the media will no doubt probe the possibilities of potential bipartisanship in the lawmaking process. Many reporters and pundits will say voters asked for less combative invective and more cooperative initiative. But despite a new majority, a number of old institutional constraints will make removing partisanship a high hurdle to cross.

Even while decrying the lack of comity and cooperation, the media is often the prime suspect in painting a glum picture of Congress. Reporters, producers and editors adore conflict. So even if lawmakers do find common ground in certain areas, those accomplishments don’t receive a lot of press attention. Partisan fights, political wounds and injuries promise to capture the bulk of the media’s attention. They always do. As they say in the news business, “If it bleeds it leads.” And in an increasingly competitive and entertainment-oriented media world, the trajectory and velocity of that trend is pretty clear. There may be some bipartisan accomplishments in the next Congress — but don’t expect them to get a lot of coverage.

Some also believe the White House will seek to accommodate the new Democratic majority in Congress and find previously elusive bipartisan common ground. A senior Republican lawmaker told me last week, “Our biggest concern is that the president will want a host of ‘legacy’ items, and he will cut deals with the Democrats — irrespective of what Republicans in Congress think — to do that.” I don’t see a real strong likelihood of that happening either. Talking about the need to end poisonous partisanship is easy; finding the antidote, however, will remain elusive. The philosophical and political differences between the two parties on issues such as the level of taxation, the role of government in health care, Social Security and domestic spending priorities are just too wide.

Looking at the changes in voting patterns in congressional districts, however, provides the strongest evidence and best insights about why spanning the partisan divide may be a bridge too far. These trends highlight why it’s more challenging now than 20 or 25 years ago to find common ground. Sentimental thinking about bipartisanship is quaint, but also anachronistic. When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 he successfully built bipartisan coalitions, particularly in the House, with Democratic lawmakers on a host of key domestic policy issues, particularly in the tax and spending arena. But during that time over a third of the congressional districts in America also split their votes — choosing one party for president and another for Congress. And in most of those cases, these divided districts supported Mr. Reagan and a Democrat for the House — creating a large pool of potential cross-pressured lawmakers. For example, 130 congressional districts represented by a Democratic House member also voted for Mr. Reagan in 1980. The pool of cross-pressured Democrats actually expanded when President George H.W. Bush was elected in 1988 — 135 congressional districts split their votes between Mr. Bush and a Democratic House member that year.

Fast-forward nearly two decades and the picture changes dramatically. In 2004 and 2006, the number of split congressional districts was less than half the number as when Mr. Reagan was president (14 and 16 percent, respectively, compared to 33 percent). After the 2006 elections, 61 Democrats now represent districts George W. Bush won in 2004, less than half of the number of “cross-pressured” lawmakers Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush could work and cajole during their administrations.

Two decades ago, when Democrats were confronted with supporting their congressional leaders or a Republican president who won a majority in their district, a large number could justify supporting the president based on his support from the folks back home. The number of lawmakers who can answer that question the same way today has dramatically shrunk.

One of the great paradoxes of American politics is that voters say they hate gridlock and stalemate, yet we end up with institutional conditions through elections that seem to reinforce those outcomes. As the number of divided control districts has declined, so have the opportunities for Republicans and Democrats to forge the kind of center-right coalitions they did in an earlier era.

Evaluating the prospects for bipartisanship in the next Congress will no doubt command a lot of attention in the coming months. It will take creative ideas for Republicans and Democrats to come together and find consensus. And while it’s certainly worth a try, political developments have made that task more challenging. Without new ideas and approaches, the decline in split districts may sweep any hope of bipartisan coalition building into the dustbin of wishful thinking.

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