Bipartisanship is not a bad word
When a friend heard that I was returning to Washington to lead an organization dedicated to strengthening the concept of Republicans and Democrats working together in the nation’s best interests, she asked a question on a lot of people’s minds. “Isn’t bipartisanship dead?”
Sadly, my friend’s point of view is not uncommon in today’s highly polarized political environment. Partisan conflict is evident on opinion-dominated cable television and in social media, and it infects even the most basic tasks of governing, such as funding the government each year and providing for our national security. But as citizens of this great democracy, each one of us has a responsibility to get involved and hold public officials accountable. Fierce debate is the foundation of our country, but so is finding common ground at the end of the day. We need to get beyond the partisan soundbites and flame throwing to solve some of our most vexing problems.
This year, House appropriators are advancing funding bills for fiscal 2024 that will provide about $120 billion less in total than what Senate appropriators are advancing, raising prospects of a government shutdown later this month if the two sides can’t come together. Meanwhile, the House and Senate are advancing vastly different versions of a 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, raising the possibility that this traditionally bipartisan measure won’t be enacted for the first time in more than six decades.
Still, even in these hyper-partisan times, lawmakers engage in more bipartisan cooperation than one might think. The major COVID-19 relief measures in 2020 were enacted with strong bipartisan support under President Trump, as was the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in 2021 under President Biden. Moreover, lawmakers of both parties routinely work together to enact lower-profile bills that shape trade, technology, education, transportation and a range of other policies.
Before I assumed the role of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s president this month, I was serving as president and CEO of Texas 2036, a private, bipartisan venture to help policymakers plan for the future. Texas turns 200 in 2036 and, by then, it will have millions more people within its borders, which will strain its infrastructure, health care and other systems.
Through this effort, I was reminded of just how much people want their government to work. From what I saw, and heard, they’re starving for policymakers who will come together rather than fight endlessly.
What’s true in Texas is also true across the country. In a recently commissioned BPC/Morning Consult poll, more than 80 percent of voters think it’s “very” or “somewhat” important for Republicans and Democrats to work together on such issues as the economy, health care, immigration and criminal justice. About three-fifths of voters, however, are not confident the parties will pass bipartisan solutions.
From my prior experience in Washington as secretary of Education, and my more recent experience in Texas, I remain convinced that most people run for office because they want to give more to our country than speeches; they want to solve problems. They want to enact policies that will leave the country a better place than they found it. To do so, they have no choice but to opt for bipartisanship.
History shows that policies enacted on a partisan basis are inherently unstable, and ripe for reversal. Take tax policy, which is one issue on which the nation lacks a bipartisan consensus and on which, to a great extent, each party has acted on its own.
For the last few decades, one party would enact major changes in tax policy when it controlled both the White House and Congress. When the other party regained the levers of power, it proceeded to undo much of what the other party had done.
By contrast, policies enacted on a bipartisan basis tend to endure. That’s been true for more than 200 years, and it remains true today.
Look at Social Security, for example, which was enacted with strong bipartisan votes in both the House and Senate in 1935, and at Medicare and Medicaid, which were passed with strong bipartisan support in 1965 — they’ve withstood changes in party control. The same has been true of the space program, which began under the Eisenhower administration, and it was true of the “containment” policies of the Cold War, which were established in the late 1940s.
It’s no coincidence that the major elements remain in place of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act — education reform legislation I helped negotiate with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) when I worked for President George W. Bush. It was enacted with strong bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate.
Nor is it coincidental that lawmakers of both parties want to build on the CHIPS and Science Act that was enacted after strong bipartisan votes in the House and Senate in 2022 by enacting a “CHIPS 2.0” that will further bolster U.S. competitiveness abroad.
Bipartisanship may not appeal to the most extreme voices of each party, but I’ve come to see that, over the long term, it’s the sine qua non of good politics and good policy. That’s something lawmakers should keep in mind as they confront fiscal and other challenges in the months and years ahead.
Bipartisanship is far more than a feel-good approach to lawmaking or a tactic to lower the temperature in Washington. Bipartisanship is really a means to a larger end. For policymakers of all stripes who want to make America stronger over the long term at home and abroad, it’s the only path forward.
Margaret Spellings is president & CEO of the Bipartisan Policy Center and served as secretary of Education and director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President George W. Bush.