John Perilli: Bipartisanship Is Ugly
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Across political parties and across time, polls have shown that American voters desire bipartisanship. We want our elected officials to work together and find solutions to our nation's problems. However, these same polls show that we're as polarized as ever. How can this be?
Our problem, I believe, is that we don't fully understand the sacrifices that make bipartisanship work. Too often, we view compromise as a friendly, idealistic process, when in reality it is a bitter story of concessions and broken promises. If our leaders are to have any flexibility to negotiate, and ultimately, to find some middle ground and govern, we need to more fully understand what this takes.
I would like to lead with a question: "Do you believe our elected officials should work to pass legislation that both parties agree on?"
According to polls, over three quarters of Americans would say yes. This holds for both Democrats and Republicans, as well as Independents. The bipartisan spirit in our country runs broad and deep.
But here's a follow-up:
If you are a liberal, how willing would you be to trim Social Security and Medicare if you thought you could strike an elusive deal? To decrease investment in renewable energy? To reduce unemployment benefits?
Or, if you are a conservative, how willing would you be to impose regulations on firearms to secure a long-sought compromise? To empower unions? To raise taxes?
Many proud partisans––myself included––would look at the questions posed to their side and quickly answer "not very willing at all." But this is exactly the problem. How can we desire bipartisanship, but be unwilling to make these difficult bargains? I'm not saying that any of the above ideas are good or bad. I am only saying that there is a disconnect at the heart of American politics: The idea that we can be both partisan and bipartisan at the same time.
A Hard Bargain
Consider a relevant (and rare) example of Democrats and Republicans cooperating in Congress: the recent federal budget proposal.
It was the result of hours of intense negotiations between the parties, led by Rep. Paul Ryan (R–Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D–Wash.), and should it pass both the House and Senate, it would be the first true budget our country has had in four years.
It is certainly a flawed document. As a liberal, I have a great many problems with the bill: It does not extend federal unemployment benefits. It keeps in place many of the cuts imposed by the infamous "sequester." It slashes pensions for federal workers.
I'm sure conservatives have plenty of issues with it as well.
But even considering it's faults, the budget is undoubtedly bipartisan, and outlines an important point about bipartisanship in general: the results it produces aren't always pretty.
In a telling moment, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) implored her fellow Democrats to " embrace the suck" and vote for the bill in spite of their reservations. Only 32 Democrats out of a caucus of 201 did not. The bill passed the House 332-94 with wide majorities of both Democrats and Republicans, many of whom were doubtless holding their noses as the final vote was cast.
However, the budget is far better than the other way of funding our government: bickering over a short-term deal every few months and threatening a federal shutdown. At the height of our recent government closure, with thousands of federal workers on furlough and hundreds of vital programs grinding to a halt, this budget would have seemed like water in the desert.
Ultimately, this is why people support bipartisanship. The costs of inaction on important issues like the budget are often higher than the gains of playing politics. But that does not mean the process of compromise is easy.
Now step into the shoes of a Democratic or Republican congressperson who has just voted on a difficult bipartisan bill. They now have to go back home and sell the deal to their constituents, who are now rightfully upset that their representative departed from their elected principles. Their approval ratings might fall, making them more vulnerable to a primary or general election challenge. And they might never get the full trust of their voters back.
On one hand, this accountability is a good thing––it allows us to hold our representatives responsible for decisions we don't agree with. But on the other hand, how are our elected officials supposed to govern if they are constantly under fire for not being partisan enough?
I think it's time for us to take a hard look at our conception of "bipartisanship." It's a lofty, patriotic ideal, but the devil is in the details. In truth, bipartisanship is difficult. It comes at the price of long negotiations, difficult concessions and tough compromises. We like to look back fondly at the days of Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill, but don't want to accept how hard it was for them to make sacrifices and work together.
This is not to say that we should abandon our parties and our principles. We still ought to hold our representatives accountable when they repeatedly wrong us. But we must also realize that hard bipartisan deals are sometimes the difference between success and dysfunction in the halls of power, and can affect the very ability of our nation to govern itself.
Related Slideshow: New England Communities With the Most Political Clout 2013
The Sunlight Foundation, in conjunction with Azavea, released data maps this week showing political contribution dollars to federal elections dating back to 1990 -- by county.
GoLocal takes a look at the counties in New England that had the highest per-capita contributions in the 2012 election cycle -- and talked with experts about what that meant for those areas in New Engand, as well as the candidates.
24. Cheshire County, NH
Contributions, per capita, 2012: $9.88
Total contributions: $759,209
Cheshire is one of the five original counties in New Hampshire and was founded in 1771. The highest point in Cheshire County is located at the top of Mount Monadnock, which was made famous by the poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
21. Hampshire County, MA
Contributions, per capita, 2012: $10.41
Total contributions: $1,664,077
Hampshire County has a total area of 545 square miles and is located in the middle of Massachusetts. Hampshire County is also the only county to be surrounded in all directions by other Massachusetts counties.
20. Barnstable County, MA
Contributions, per capita, 2012: $10.90
Total contributions: $2,348,541
Barnstable County was founded in 1685 and has three national protected areas. Cape Cod National Seashore is the most famous protected area within Barnstable County and brings in a high amount of tourists every year.
19. Berkshire County, MA
Contributions, per capita, 2012: $12.49
Total contributions: $1,624,400
Berkshire County is located on the western side of Massachusetts and borders three different neighboring states. Originally the Mahican Native American Tribe inhabited Berkshire County up until the English settlers arrived and bought the land in 1724.
18. Essex County, MA
Contributions, per capita, 2012: $13.22
Total contributions: $9,991,201
Essex is located in the northeastern part of Massachusetts and contains towns such as Salem, Lynn, and Andover. Essex was founded in 1643 and because of Essex historical background, the whole county has been designated as the Essex National Heritage Area.
15. Addison County, VT
Contributions, per capita, 2012: $15.49
Total contributions: $569,299
Located on the west side of Vermont, Addison County has a total area of 808 square miles. Addison's largest town is Middlebury, where the Community College of Vermont and Middlebury College are located.
11. Bristol County, RI
Contributions, per capita, 2012: $20.91
Total contributions: $1,027,472
Bristol County has a population of 49,144 and is the third smallest county in the United States. Bristol County was originally apart of Massachusetts, but was transferred to Rhode Island in 1746.
10. Grafton County, NH
Contributions, per capita, 2012 :$20.95
Total contributions: $1,868,739
With a population of 89,181, Grafton County is the second largest county in New Hampshire. Home of New Hampshire’s only national forest, White Mountain National Forest takes up about half of Grafton’s total area
7. Middlesex County, MA
Contributions, per capita, 2012: $32.81
Total contributions: $50,432,154
Middlesex County has a population of 1,503,085 and has been ranked as the most populous county in New England. The county government was abolished in 1997, but the county boundaries still exists for court jurisdictions and other administrative purposes.
6. Nantucket County, MA
Contributions, per capita, 2012: $33.41
Total contributions: $344,021
Nantucket County consists of a couple of small islands and is a major tourist destination in Massachusetts. Normally Nantucket has a population of 10,298, but during the summer months the population can reach up to 50,000.
4. Dukes County, MA
Contributions, per capita, 2012: $36.32
Total contributions: $618,960
Consisting of Martha’s Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands, Dukes County is one of Massachusetts’ top vacation spots. Originally Dukes County was apart New York, however it was transferred to Massachusetts on October 7, 1691.
3. Suffolk County, MA
Contributions, per capita, 2012: $40.73
Total contributions: $30,323,537
Suffolk County has a population of 744,426 and contains Massachusetts’s largest city, Boston. Although Suffolk’s county government was abolished in the late 1900’s, it still remains as a geographic area.
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