‘Bipartisanship’ in Congress: Good or bad?

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From a bipartisan commission on debt to a bipartisan health care bill, the B-word has become the defining goal of Washington this year - but those on both sides have a tough time defining it.

For some, it’s the paramount mission of legislating. Middle-of-the-road lawmakers from both parties demand that bipartisanship be breathed back into the process as a precondition for success. They include Sens. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, and Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas Democrat, who called last week for a return to the table to finish health care reform.

For others, it’s become nearly a dirty word. They say bipartisan policies are usually bad policies.

“The problem I have is, this is my 12th year in the Congress - I cannot recall any bipartisan bill that did not increase spending, expand government and increase our debt,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, explaining why some conservatives react reflexively to the concept of bipartisanship.

That’s no less true for liberals, whose top priorities in the health care debate have been jettisoned in the past several months as Democratic leaders sought a winning coalition.

“I bet there’s a lot of Democrats, a lot of progressives, who ultimately think ‘bipartisan’ is a bad word,” said Charles Chamberlain, political director at Democracy for America. The group, founded by former presidential candidate Howard Dean, last week fired off an e-mail to members titled “Good policy, not bipartisan junk.”

He said bipartisanship often “becomes code for ‘We’re willing to compromise everything just to get one or more persons from the other side on board.’ ”

The word “bipartisan” entered the lexicon about the turn of the last century, and on its face its meaning seems clear: two political parties working together.

But after 100 years of use and misuse of the term, its meaning is now anything but clear.

Throughout the health care debate, Democrats have said they’re willing to compromise for the sake of bipartisanship, but Republicans countered that a real bipartisan bill would include only provisions on which both parties agree.

Contrast that with last week’s slimmed-down jobs bill in the Senate. Republicans pushed for a broad bill written by a Democrat and a Republican as the bipartisan solution, but Democrats instead pushed through a bare-minimum measure that Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said was bipartisan because all sides agreed on its elements.

Keith Poole, a professor at the University of California at San Diego who has created an index to measure partisanship in Congress, said bipartisanship is at its lowest point since the end of Reconstruction.

“What bipartisanship basically means is a broad cross-party coalition to pass a bill,” he said. “The reason why you’re having trouble with the definition is it doesn’t happen anymore.”

He blamed the disappearance of conservative Democrats, liberal Republicans and moderate lawmakers of all political stripes for the breakdown of bipartisanship in Washington. He noted that strong bipartisan support helped enact the Social Security program in 1935 and Medicare in 1965.

As a more recent example, he pointed to the 1983 deal between Republicans and Democrats to put the Social Security program on stronger financial footing.

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