Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Partisan Myth

One of the mainstream media’s favorite tropes is to bemoan the lack of bipartisanship in Washington.  Turn on the cable chat or Sunday talk shows that frame political discussion in our country and you will hear some variation on the theme that “Washington is broken.” The culprits vary depending on the speaker, but the overriding message is the same – why can’t our leaders negotiate and … wait for it … COMPROMISE?

As with many fallacies espoused by elite journalists, there is a thin patina of truth overlying a much more partisan answer that they do not want to acknowledge – Republican Presidents have had a far easier go of it in negotiating with Democrats in Congress than the other way around. Indeed, this simple fact was acknowledged, albeit elliptically, by David Brooks in his modest endorsement of Mitt Romney for President. Brooks essentially said that Congressional Republicans were unlikely to bargain with President Obama and therefore, to cut the deals necessary for our nation’s future, electing Romney was the better solution because Democrats are more amenable to compromise. Talk about rewarding bad behavior!

While the mainstream media bends over backwards to amplify vague, if inconsequential statements being made by a few Republicans regarding their willingness to increase tax “revenue” (these plans look suspiciously like ones supported by their just-defeated Presidential standard bearer), those same reporters rarely mention the wide gap between words and deeds when each party is at the bargaining table. Without even harkening back to the days of Ronald Reagan, who received wide support from Democrats on tax increases and immigration reform, or George H.W. Bush, who cut a deal in 1990 to raise taxes on the wealthy, one need only put our two most recent Presidents up for comparison to see the difference in the other party’s opposition.

Much can be said about the ruinous effects of George W. Bush’s time in office, but a lack of bipartisanship on the part of Democrats is not one of them. Bush’s legislative achievements were impressive, though deleterious, to the nation, and in those victories many Democrats “crossed the aisle” to support him. Consider No Child Left Behind, a sweeping reform of education policy. Not only did The White House broker a deal with two of Congress’s most liberal members (Congressman George Miller and Senator Ted Kennedy), the bill garnered more Democratic votes in the House (198) than Republican (182). In the Senate, the ”ayes” were nearly even (44 Republicans/43 Democrats). As another example, sweeping reform of the bankruptcy code, something many liberals bemoaned as making it harder for individuals to utilize that system to get a clean start, was supported by 73 House Democrats and 18 Democratic Senators. 

Where Democrats were more recalcitrant, as in the two massive tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003, each bill still received nominal Democratic support (13 House Democrats and 12 Senate Democrats voted for the 2001 bill, 4 House Democrats and 3 Senate Democrats voted for the 2003 bill); but even there, Democrats’ opposition was immaterial; the House was under GOP control and in the Senate, reconciliation was utilized to avoid use of the filibuster (though based on the final vote, the 2001 tax cut would not have been blocked because less than 40 Democrats would have attempted to block it).

Interestingly, although few Democrats supported the tax cuts that helped lead us into financial ruin, they were the ones providing the critical votes to address the cratering of the U.S. economy in 2008. Nancy Pelosi is a favored piñata of the right wing, but she carried more political water for George W. Bush than any person since Gunga Din at the River Kwai. Pelosi’s caucus provided a no-need-for-Republican-votes majority on TARP (241 votes) and housing relief (227 votes), and a near majority for Bush’s 2008 $156 billion stimulus bill (215 votes). In each of these votes, Republicans were essentially after thoughts – for example, only 19 House Republicans voted for TARP, while Senate Democrats voted in favor of all three in greater numbers than Republicans[1].

Lastly, in foreign policy, 82 House and 29 Senate Democrats crossed the aisle to support the Iraq War Authorization even though the evidence presented was wobbly and nothing like the “Grand Coalition” or clear U.N. authorization that had been amassed by President George H.W. Bush existed. On controversial matters like the 2008 reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, 105 House Democrats and 22 Senate Democrats (including Barack Obama) voted in favor of the law even though it contained a provision granting retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that, based on reporting, appeared to have turned over copious amounts of information (in all likelihood illegally) to the Bush Administration. For all intents and purposes, passage of this bill shut down critical lawsuits that had been filed by private citizens and states in order to ascertain the full scope and nature of the potentially illegal wiretapping, eavesdropping and transfer of phone records of millions of Americans to the National Security Agency.

Now, let’s flash forward to the Presidency of Barack Obama. The three biggest pieces of legislation passed by the Congress during his time in office are the Affordable Care Act, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and Dodd/Frank. Each of these bills ran into lockstep Republican opposition. Taken together, nine “aye” votes were cast by Republicans for these three bills. Not nine votes for each bill, nine votes TOTAL. The ACA received a lone Republican vote in the House[2] and no votes in the Senate. No House Republicans voted for ARRA and just two Senate Republicans, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, voted in the affirmative. As for Dodd/Frank, three Republicans in each chamber supported a bill passed to address at least some of the causes of the Great Recession. That the President received so little Republican support should have been no surprise after a whopping 3 House and 4 Senate Republicans voted in favor of what would become the first law enacted after Obama’s inaugural – the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

While it is true that the President has garnered Republican support for other key pieces of legislation, the two that leap most readily to mind were negotiated at the point of a fiscal gun – specifically, the 2010 extension of the “Bush tax cuts” and the 2011 bill that raised the nation’s debt ceiling[3]. In both instances, the result of compromise was the thinnest of accomplishments – allowing the federal government to continue operating, avoiding default on our debt and continuing tax policy that overwhelmingly benefitted the wealthiest Americans. In other areas as significant as a bill aimed at employing more than 1 million Americans and as nominal as the appointment of the U.S. Public Printer, Republicans simply refused to act[4].  Indeed, since the Democrats regained the Senate majority in January 2007, Republican use of the filibuster has been unprecedented, used not only to slow down passage of legislation Republicans disfavor, but to postpone uncontroversial nominations for months on end, throwing sand in the gears of effective governing and delaying the appointment of highly qualified individuals who ended up being confirmed with near unanimous support.

Principled opposition is a time honored tradition in our form of government but blind obstruction is a different matter. On major pieces of legislation that determined the trajectory of our country, from war policy to economic bail outs, Democrats supported President Bush. The reaction of Republicans to President Obama has been the exact opposite. They attempted to stop the implementation of a health care bill whose conceptual framework was created at a right-wing think tank and a stimulus act that included a massive tax cut geared mostly to middle-class Americans. Meanwhile, they utilized legislative tactics aimed at inhibiting the basic functioning of government.  To say “both sides do it” is like saying the flu and terminal cancer are the same because they both make you sick – factually true but entirely beside the point.

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[1]  On TARP, Senate Democrats provided 39 votes, Republicans, 35. On housing relief, 48 Democrats voted in favor, only 34 Republicans supported it. For the 2008 Stimulus, 47 Democrats voted for the bill, compared to 32 Republicans.
[2]  Representative Joseph Cao was that lone Republican, but his presence in Congress was a quirk of history. He won his seat in 2008 opposing William Jefferson, who was under federal investigation for corruption, eking out a 3 point win. Cao was defeated for re-election in 2010.
[3]    It is worth noting that the debt ceiling was raised 7 times under George W. Bush, including twice in 2008.
[4]  Most of the American Jobs Act never saw the light of day and Obama ended up recess appointing William Boarman as the Public Printer.

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