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Ilona's Blog: October 2020

Bipartisanship: RX for Progress by Ilona Nickels

We have to see compromise as a
necessary part of governing,
and not always as a
selling out of one's principles.

Washington's favorite buzz word is "bipartisanship." Everyone thinks they know what it means, but all don't have the same meaning in mind when they use the word.

Bipartisanship implies cooperation in policy-making among two parties that see things from different perspectives. It implies rising above the usual party divide to seek an outcome that serves the national interest. On the other hand, it does not imply surrendering all principles just in order to get a deal.

Nor is bipartisanship merely civility in debate. When you disagree on issues that invoke passion, then civility certainly helps. However, bipartisanship goes well beyond changing the tone of discussion and more toward a cooperative process which produces a mutually arrived at consensus.

Honest policy disagreements can lead to some pretty heated debate. That is to be expected and should not be dismissed as simply petty bickering, but as an often beneficial clash of ideas. The policy disputes that arise within Congress, for example, are a natural reflection of our complex and diverse society. Vigorous debate must remain a legitimate part of lawmaking and is not inconsistent with bipartisanship. And we can all agree that bipartisanship requires mutual respect.

Former Senators George Mitchell, a Democrat, and Robert Dole of Kansas, a Republican, once said that in six years of serving across the aisle from one another, a cross word never passed their lips, privately or publicly. As their respective party's leader in Congress, the two spent many hours in conversation in the cloakrooms off the Senate floor seeking consensus. Former Speaker Tip O'Neill, an avid Democrat, got along famously well with former President Ronald Reagan, a conservative Republican, in the backrooms, as well as on the golf course.

These legislative partnerships serve as a role model for bipartisanship by demonstrating that leaders on opposite sides of the issues can disagree without being disagreeable.

In Congress, the voters have often split institutional control. For example, Democrats may have the majority in the House; Republicans the majority in the Senate, which is now the case.  When the Congress is divided, the requirements of the legislative process still remain the same — an agreement from both chambers on the same bill, word for word, for it to become law.

It would be unreasonable to expect that a closely divided nation will produce Representatives and Senators who work smoothly together on all issues all of the time. It is not at all surprising that we see some issues end in stale-mates and some end in laws that do not please everyone entirely.

But we can get laws enacted only when the desire to win one for the party takes second place to the desire to see a consensus emerge for the benefit of the country.

Throughout our nation's history, the greatest achievements were the result of bipartisan cooperation, and often unusual political alliances. Examples that come to mind include Civil Rights legislation of the 1960's, the creation of Medicare in 1965, the overhaul of the Social Security system in the '80s, the post 9/11 enhanced security measures in 2001-2002, the 2008 Recession bailout bill to save our economy from going under.

Bipartisanship cooperation can be greatly expedited by two factors: the willingness of the citizens of our country to accept the products of consensus, and the willingness of our leaders in the House, Senate, and White House to engage in constructive relationships with one another.

The people – that’s you and me – have to give our leaders permission to compromise in the quest to get to law.  We have to see compromise as a necessary part of governing, and not always as a selling out of one's principles.  Legislators struggle daily with the conflict between pragmatism and perfection when they decide how to vote. The votes for the perfect are not always there. Whether or not to accept adjustments to a bill in order to get an end product is often a tough call.

It would greatly aid our lawmakers if the electorate paused to engage in the same struggle of conscience, and occasionally sent permission to Washington to enact the possible over the perfect.

And bipartisanship requires that our political leaders – the lawmakers and the President – agree that they want some progress over no progress; that they will accept a half loaf rather than holding out for that elusive whole loaf.

If this pragmatic view of bipartisanship were to take hold, then we could see progress in important areas now beset by controversy. If we don't see progress, don't just blame the President or the Congress. We are all accountable for that failure — the voters, and the men and women they elect to serve in Congress and the White House.

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