Bipartisanship shouldn't be a political death sentence

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), left, and Bob Bennett (R-Utah) at a budget committee hearing in June 2007.
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), left, and Bob Bennett (R-Utah) at a budget committee hearing in June 2007. (Courtesy Ron Wyden's Office)
By Ron Wyden
Friday, May 21, 2010

The message that many partisan activists want me and my congressional colleagues to take away from this week's primaries and Utah's recent GOP convention is that engaging in bipartisanship is tantamount to surrendering your political party's most-prized principles. In fact, some in my party will undoubtedly criticize me for writing kind words about my friend Sen. Bob Bennett, just as some in Bob's party thought that his working with a Democrat was sufficient grounds for losing his seat in the U.S Senate. In other words, many of the most committed activists believe that the only way for Republicans to win legislatively is for Democrats to lose, and vice versa.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, legislating is treated as if there is a giant congressional scoreboard that will ultimately determine which party gets to be in charge. What one side is for legislatively, the other is unalterably against. Many believe that is the only way to achieve clear victory.

While it is certainly true that legislating can be (and is) turned into a zero-sum game, despite what you hear on cable news, not every issue has diametrically opposed Democratic and Republican ideologies. In fact, not only are there policy areas on which Democrats and Republicans agree but when it comes to legislating, many issues present opportunities to build on the best ideas of both parties. No single party has a lock on all the good ideas.

I still think I had a pretty good idea for health reform -- despite its rejection by significant Democratic and Republican leaders -- but so did Bob Bennett. I was on the Senate floor three years ago when Bob walked across the center aisle to tell me he was willing to work with me on health reform. I had been meeting with him and other Senate colleagues for many weeks to talk about the Healthy Americans Act and what I believed was a historic opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to work together on an important issue.

Ideologically, Bob and I couldn't be more different. He's pro-life. I'm pro-choice. He voted for the Iraq war; I didn't. If Bob has ever seen a tax break he didn't like, I am unaware of it. But one thing Bob and I have in common is our fundamental belief that we were elected to do more than just get reelected, that once elections are over we have a duty to try to govern even if it means working with people with whom we don't always agree.

While I'll let others debate what became of the Wyden-Bennett health-reform bill, our effort married the best, most principled ideas that both parties had been promoting for decades. Like most Democrats, my fundamental principle was guaranteeing quality, affordable health coverage for all Americans. Like most Republicans, Bob felt strongly that market forces be used to promote expanded consumer choice and competition. Our legislation did both. As long as I would help Bob achieve his marketplace principles and avoid bigger government, Bob said he could back me on getting everyone insured.

Working in a bipartisan fashion can lead to watered-down legislation, yes, but principled bipartisanship can also lead to a value-added, better result. Personally, I believe that both sides can get much more of what they want by working together than by simply trying to prevent the other side from gaining ground. By working with those with whom we don't necessarily see eye to eye, we are forced to work harder, to test our ideas and to consider solutions that we may never have thought of on our own. Moreover, if Democrats and Republicans ever stop fighting each other, they might finally find the strength to defeat the interest groups that all too easily exploit the partisan divide.

Bob Bennett is one of the most conservative men I have ever known, but he is also one of the best. Even in defeat, he told me that he doesn't for one minute regret working with me to try to do something important for the country, which is why I consider his loss so tragic. The country needs more senators who think like Bob Bennett, not fewer.

While it may be tempting to read the recent elections as a rejection of principled bipartisanship, polling shows that the majority of the American people are sick of the status quo, and the status quo is a Washington obsessed with legislating as though Congress's sole function is to play a wholly partisan, zero-sum game. The American people want us to put our nation ahead of party allegiances. They want us to do more than devise ways to gain and maintain power. They want us to be constructive with that power.

The regrettable irony of what transpired in Utah's Republican convention is that a small number of hyperpartisan activists have just ensured that Utah's contribution to the Senate will be less bipartisanship and more of the status quo in Washington. If that is the change that partisans are offering the nation, let's make certain the American public understands.

The writer is a Democratic senator from Oregon.

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