Compromise and a willingness to put partisan and ideological interests aside in the name of the common good nearly always sounds good. But it’s wise to be wary. “The common good” is often good mostly for the clever, the selfish and those with the best lawyers and brightest lobbyists.
“Comprehensive reform,” for an example, requires bipartisan consensus to win public, congressional and presidential approval. If such legislation is pushed too far, too fast, through Congress it creates more problems than it solves. Two such examples are much of the civil rights legislation of the ‘60s and the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, of our own day.
There are a number of ways reforms attract bipartisan support. They can make so much sense that Republicans, Democrats, liberals and conservatives agree with each other on the merits of the legislation. This, ideally, is the way it should be. President Obama’s view of bipartisanship, however, is different. He dares his opponents to agree with him or face the consequence of rhetorical beatings and media shaming. This often cows the weak and passionless to surrender their principles merely to get a place by the campfire, to hold hands and sing all 44 verses of “Kumbaya.”
The worst of bipartisan comprehensive reforms are forged by special interests, who have much to spend, and they’re eager to spread it around. Such money, like water, finds its way to the lowest places. “Comprehensive” patent law proposals now squirming and worming through Congress are the poster children of this sort of bipartisan reform. Patent law clearly needs updating; the body of patent law has not been improved in 30 years, and during that time many new things have been invented and many old things have been improved. Congress is rightly focused on fixing, or tweaking, them. It’s important to make life difficult for the “trollers” who threaten businesses large and small with nuisance lawsuits claiming patent infringement. The trollers’ message is clear: Pay up, and we’ll go away.
Some reformers, however, see base opportunity, a chance to turn the need for a limited “fix” into an opportunity to push through the “comprehensive” reforms that will be profitable not for the common good, but for themselves. Google, the Internet information colossus, spent $17 million last year to lobby for “comprehensive reform.” That alone is enough to question how Google defines “comprehensive,” “reform” and “good public policy.”
In addition to spending millions on lobbying, Google has contributed $800,000 to Mr. Obama’s political campaigns, and Google executives are underfoot everywhere in Washington, eager to push the sort of “reform” Google prescribes.
Republicans see a problem that could be solved, and it’s an opportunity for a bipartisan moment as well, to get some of the campaign money now going to Mr. Obama and his friends. Thus comprehensive patent reform legislation could wind up on the president’s desk for the wrong reasons.
“Comprehensive” proposals that rewrite the law are prone to producing dangerous unforeseen consequences. When industry giants spend hundreds of millions of dollars to “fix” something, it’s time to be careful. “Trust,” as Ronald Reagan said in another context, “but verify.” Congress should fix what needs to be fixed and resist the temptation to rewrite patent laws that have sparked innovation and protected the property rights of the creative class. Bipartisan happy moments can wait.
“Rushing to pass bad legislation just so we can demonstrate a willingness to work with the White House,” says Ken Blackwell, the former secretary of state of Ohio, “is not the path to take.” Good advice.
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