- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2011

In the sharply divided 112th Congress, bipartisan support for anything seems rare — but perhaps not as “rare” as has been advertised.

The House approved a massive defense bill by a 283-136 vote late Wednesday in a “rare bipartisan vote,” according to an Associated Press account. Not to dampen this Congress‘ reputation as a dysfunctional conglomeration of polar opposites, but it turns out that the warring Democrats and Republicans are striking “rare bipartisan” agreements rather frequently these days.

Agenda items described in the media as receiving “rare bipartisan support” include a trio of free-trade agreements, a veterans jobs proposal, an immigration bill for highly skilled workers, a pipeline safety accord, the repeal of a withholding tax on government contractors, a bill to thwart Chinese currency manipulation, the need to fight online piracy, the nomination of an Energy Department undersecretary, an overhaul of the nation’s patent system, new sanctions on Iran, federal highway funding and the sale of three federal properties.

And that’s just since early September.

Rare bipartisan agreements, it turns out, are fairly common.

“I just Googled ‘rare bipartisan support’ and got 882 results for the past year,” said Dan Kennedy, assistant professor at the Northeastern University School of Journalism in Boston.

(Full disclosure: “Rare bipartisan” produces 10 hits since Sept. 9 on The Washington Times internal archive.)

Which raises the question: If something happens all the time, can it really be described as rare?

It’s tempting to ding journalists for buying into the popular perception that Congress never agrees on anything despite evidence to the contrary. A case could be made for relegating the phrase “rare bipartisan support” to the list of forbidden journalistic cliches, along with “raising awareness,” “remains to be seen” and “It’s the economy, stupid.”

But don’t pin all the blame on reporters, Mr. Kennedy said. While lawmakers may be in accord on many issues, there’s little bipartisan harmony to be found on big-picture questions such as the size and role of the federal government.

“It seems to me that bipartisan support on major issues, especially involving spending, taxes and presidential appointments, really has become extremely rare,” Mr. Kennedy said. “Right now, we’re headed for a deadline over shutting down the federal government for the third time this year, and President Obama is having an unusually difficult time winning confirmation for high-level executive judicial appointments. So whenever Democrats and Republicans are able to work together on anything, it seems worthy of note.”

Seth Masket, a University of Denver professor of political science, noted that any legislation that passes in the 2011-12 Congress must by definition receive bipartisan support, given that Democrats control the Senate and Republicans the House.

“Since we have divided government now, absolutely anything that passes is going to be bipartisan, so obviously you’ve got a lot of negotiation, give and take, and bluster before anything gets voted on,” Mr. Masket said.

Still, calling such agreements “rare” isn’t necessarily a misnomer, he insisted.

“There’s not a ton of actual ‘bipartisan support’ going on right now,” said Mr. Masket. “I would think you have fewer bills passing now than you did when Democrats controlled both houses. But obviously, you have to do some things, and whenever that happens, it’s going to have bipartisan support.”

And don’t underestimate the power of public relations. Political parties and special-interest groups often sell their pet projects under the guise of having bipartisan support, even if such support is negligible at best.

“A lot of this depends on how you define ‘bipartisan support,’ ” said Mr. Masket. “If you have 100 Democrats and one Republican in favor of something, the Democrats are going to call that ‘bipartisan.’ “

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