The myth of Washington bipartisanship and the art of true compromise

By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, February 5, 2010

Give this to Scott Brown: He's just been sworn in, and he's already having a positive impact on the governing dynamic in the capital. The president, key lawmakers and even the press have begun to focus on the dysfunctionality of the political process that now threatens all incumbents, irrespective of party and ideology. People have begun to talk to one another -- Obama with House Republicans, Jon Stewart with Bill O'Reilly -- and the tone has gotten noticeably more civil. In the 12-step program for overcoming our partisan addiction, we're now somewhere between Step 1 (acknowledging the problem) and Step 2 (accepting personal responsibility for doing something about it).

One thing that is already obvious is that most people in Washington have forgotten what bipartisanship means in practice, if indeed they ever knew it.

The most common misconception is that bipartisanship means finding common ground and focusing on the things most everyone agrees on. In reality, that turns out to be a pretty small set of ideas and proposals that, taken together, would not address the major challenges before us. Certainly, that is the obvious place to begin, and it would be an improvement over the current gridlock, but it won't add up to effective governance.

After all, if the only things the party in power can accomplish are those that the minority power can agree with, then what is the point of having an election? No matter which side won a majority, "common ground" -- the things they all agree on -- would still be the same.

The only way a democratic system like ours can work is if the majority party acknowledges that winning an election means winning the right to set the agenda and put the first proposal on the table, though not the right to get everything it wants. By the same logic, if members of the minority party want to influence that policy, they have to understand that it will require them to accept some things they don't like to get some things they do.

All this is rather elementary stuff, but trust me when I say that until recently, you'd have trouble finding anyone who seemed to understand it. For years, the reigning philosophy from both sides has been "It's our way or the highway." It has reached the point where people don't know how to hammer out a compromise even when they might be so inclined, as we saw during the charade put on by the "gang of six" trying to negotiate a health-care compromise in the Senate. That dynamic is unlikely to change until the voters get so disgusted that they are willing to indiscriminately turn out all incumbents, irrespective of party and ideology. Perhaps we have finally reached that tipping point.

It's not hard to figure out the contours of such compromises.

On health care, a compromise would include government-supervised insurance exchanges where small businesses and uninsured people buy insurance; a requirement that everyone buy insurance, with subsidies for low-income households; and a package of insurance reforms that prevent insurers from denying coverage or raising premiums when people grow old or get sick. To make it all affordable, Democrats might have to give up expanding the Medicaid program, pare back the basic insurance package, drop the employer mandate and swallow a tax on Cadillac insurance plans. Republicans would have to accept some regulation of insurer profits and prices charged by doctors, hospitals, medical-device makers and drug companies.

On financial regulation, a reasonable bipartisan compromise would include consolidation of all federal bank supervision in a single new agency with beefed-up responsibility for consumer protection -- not the separate consumer agency that Democrats want, but also not the pushover the banks desire. A new super-agency, under the direction of a committee of top financial regulators, would be charged with identifying and minimizing risks to the entire financial system, with the power to set capital standards and leverage ratios and limit how a bank's capital can be invested. The risk regulator would also be empowered to direct the orderly liquidation of any insolvent financial institution deemed too big or interconnected to be handled in the normal process, but without resorting to taxpayer funds.

It is laughably naive to think that these compromises can be hammered out in public, broadcast live on C-SPAN, as Republicans now demand. And, given the ideological leanings of today's congressional leaders, hammering them out would require the active involvement of the president, as well as influential moderates from both parties -- including, one would hope, the new senator from Massachusetts.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the loss of a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate does not doom health-care reform or financial regulatory reform, or even a new stimulus bill. It is not the filibuster, per se, that is likely to prevent passage of important legislation, so much as its use in combination with other parliamentary tactics to prevent the Senate from even taking up legislation.

And that's where Joe Biden comes in. The vice president needs to step up to his constitutional duty as presiding officer of the Senate and begin overturning those age-old parliamentary precedents that now allow partisan obstructionists to eviscerate all semblance of majority rule. Until that's done, Republicans will have no incentive to agree to any real compromises, Democrats will continue trying to pass legislation without them, and everyone will come out a loser.

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