- - Wednesday, February 14, 2018


The House and Senate’s passage of “a two-year budget deal,” (plus an appropriation to avoid a “government shutdown” for a month, during which the details of that deal may be negotiated) is news because the “deal” spends 13.5 percent more for the coming two fiscal years than the Obama administration had proposed for them, and expands the government at an unprecedented rate. By comparison, President Obama was a conservative. Who’d a thunk it?

But more fundamentally the budget is not news at all. For a generation, nearly all federal expenditures have been passed this way — as bipartisan deals between congressional leaders. Bitter partisan rhetoric aside, these deals effectively create a bipartisan “Uni-Party” that preempts, precludes, crowds out, alternatives and restricts votes to questions with preordained results. This time too, the few dissenters are mostly conservative Republicans who try to do what nearly all Republicans promised to the people who vote Republican.

This peculiar kind of bipartisanship began in 1970, when the Senate allowed the filibuster-by-threat-thereof, effectively requiring 60 votes to pass anything controversial. Because “everybody who counts” now votes virtually in unison, because if everybody is responsible, no one is responsible, we the voters have no way of holding our elected representatives responsible for what any given “deal” does to us.

President Trump devoted part of his 2018 State of the Union address to advocating bipartisanship, calling for “a fair compromise, one where nobody gets everything they want, but where our country gets the critical reforms it needs” — a standard definition of bipartisanship. But bipartisanship today means making deals behind closed doors, voting them into law while pretending that no legitimate alternatives exist, at the last minute, under threat of a filibuster-caused “government shutdown.” One wonders what Mr. Trump would have accepted were it not for that threat. He clearly wants to see the filibuster gone.

“Nobody gets everything they want.” But who are “they,” and what is it that they want? What is a “fair compromise?” Fair to whom? As per Madison’s Federalist #10, American legislators have always represented a multiplicity of interests, explicitly. The many individuals making the compromises defined the fairness thereof in the course of open committee hearings and votes. But in today’s “bipartisan” compromises, the party leaders who broker them subsume these interests, in secret, to get things that they judge “fair” to themselves.

But the more that leaders of opposing parties prioritize “fairness” to one another, the more they do business on the public’s behalf while treating the public as if it were none of its business, the more their constituencies must experience unfairness to themselves.

Who authorizes them to do it? America’s Founders meant for the people elected to the U.S. Congress to “refine and enlarge the public view” in public, so that the public might hold them accountable at election time. Our electoral system was intended to produce legislators who are responsible individually — not disciplined parties who are responsible collectively. But today’s bipartisanship dilutes each party’s collective responsibility and removes government yet one more step from popular control. Who elected party leaders to do that? By what right do they join to put some things “on the table” and to keep others off?

Increasingly, we are being governed by something approaching a “Grand Coalition.” This phenomenon is familiar in Europe, much of which has been ruled by parliamentary majorities composed of legislators from the traditionally opposed parties of the right and left. This has tended to discredit the parties involved, has fostered the rise of anti-system groups, de-legitimized government in general, and has contributed to Europe’s socio-political collapse. No one imagines how it might end.

Here too, the co-mingling of Republicans’ and Democrats’ responsibility makes it impossible to hold either party responsible, and has led increasing sectors of our population to feel that neither their elected representative nor the party to which that official belongs represents them.

While institutional arrangements are not the cause of the problem, they contribute to it. In the House of Representatives, though the majority party may choose to ally with the minority against some of its own members, it cannot claim that it is forced to do so. Something like that was the case in the Senate prior to the 1970 institution of the virtual filibuster and hence of the 60 vote requirement. But that Senate rule is now the excuse that both parties’ leaders in both chambers give for their collusion: The rule makes us do it. And besides, bipartisanship is a good thing.

No. This kind of bipartisanship is profoundly subversive of democratic responsibility. And while repealing the 1970 rule would not be an infallible remedy for irresponsibility, it would remove a major excuse for it.

Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University.

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