A more partisan politics with more bipartisan results
I don't think David Broder's "pox-on-both-their-houses" take on health-care reform sufficiently accounts for the abject groveling before the Gang of Six and the Republican abandonment of the Wyden-Bennett bill. But Broder is certainly not alone when he says, "What should have been a moment of proud accomplishment for the Senate, right up there with the passage of Social Security and the first civil rights bills, was instead a travesty of low-grade political theater -- angry rhetoric and backroom deals."
This hits something important, I think. But it's something that, for the foreseeable future, we're going to have to adjust to, rather than be continually disgusted by.
The bill that just passed the Senate was effectively the Massachusetts reform plan brought to national scale. It had more cost control, and more delivery-system reforms, but those were the main differences, and none of them were the controversial differences. All that might lead an observer to judge this a centrist success. After all, the Massachusetts plan was an incremental, public-private hybrid developed by Mitt Romney, a Republican governor who is now a credible Republican presidential candidate, and when it passed, Broder called it a "major policy success."
But its national successor passed with no Republican votes at the end of a horrifyingly bitter process. And Romney, now that he's a national Republican, has abandoned the reform plan he signed.
Conversely, Social Security and Medicare were simple government takeovers. Liberalism in its crudest, bluntest forms. But both of them enjoyed substantial Republican support. On the eve of the Senate vote on health-care reform, Mitch McConnell compared their bipartisan enactment favorably to the partisan process that had resulted in this year's much more moderate legislation. Indeed, even though most Republicans opposed both plans when they were initially proposed, few Republicans dare question their sanctity today.
We are less bipartisan in process even as we have become more bipartisan in substance. And that's not because Harry Reid is less of a sweetheart than Lyndon Johnson, or because FDR was so much more personable than Barack Obama. It's for all the boring political-science reasons: The post-civil-rights realignment of the parties along ideological lines, the increase in partisan polarization, the strengthening of the two parties. People are agreeing less which means they're compromising more.
Passing legislation through a partisan process is a perfectly fine way to pass legislation. It's certainly not obviously worse than passing legislation through a nominally bipartisan process that exists because conservative, racist southerners don't want to give up their committee chairs and so remain in the Democratic Party. But the danger is that we continually compare it to bipartisan memories of yore and decide to convince the American people that the sole avenue available for legislative progress is too ugly and seedy to support. Sacrificing the accomplishments we can have for the politics we can't have is not a good trade.
Moreover, was the legislative process every so shiny and decent and good? Ronald Reagan mused that "I have wondered at times what the Ten Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through the U.S. Congress." Mark Twain said, "Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself." It's common to compare the legislative process to making sausage -- the point being that it's ugly and grimy and you'll like it better if you don't watch too closely.
There was a period running from about the Great Depression to the 1980s, during which Congress enjoyed an uncommonly high level of consensus. Congress has changed, though, and so, too, has the country. The graph atop this post shows that trajectory, at least within the Congress. It's depressing, but with some pretty modest changes, our system can adapt to it. The resulting accomplishments will be uglier even if, from the perspective of moderates, they'll actually be better. We're going to have to adapt to that, too. Otherwise, we're just going to top the rampant polarization that makes it so difficult to get anything done with an all-consuming cynicism that diminishes what little we actually manage to achieve.
December 29, 2009; 4:22 PM ET
Categories: Congress , Government , Senate
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