June 18, 2019
Opinion & Editorial

Is Partisanship a Necessary Evil?

Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell. Democratic Socialist, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Left/ Courtesy Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons.Right/Courtesy Senate Democrats, Wikimedia Commons). Collage by Andrew Barren’22/Media)

A truck driver ignores the clearance signs on his way to the Holland Tunnel, a passageway connecting New York and New Jersey. To no surprise, the truck’s wheels reel to a grunting stop as its body slams into the tunnel’s beams. Emergency vehicles arrive on the scene to assist the driver, but they cannot extricate the truck. The frustration from piling traffic ensues, until a witness comes up with a simple solution: deflate the tires.

Just weeks ago, the most powerful government on the face of the earth also reeled to a stop for thirty five days.

During this time, an estimated 800,000 federal workers went home without a paycheck, including TSA and air traffic control workers, responsible for keeping our flights safe. The Food & Drug Administration halted their regular inspections of most of what we eat. And the GDP was reduced by approximately eleven billion dollars.

On January 25, the government passed a three-week, temporary spending resolution, but another shutdown is on the horizon if the president and Congress cannot agree on a budget. Both parties are stuck in gridlock, and there is frustration piling, with journalists, pundits and citizens alike blaring their horns in frustration. I wondered if there could be a simple solution to resolve this stoppage.

What if partisanship were removed from legislation? Could bills be sponsored anonymously in Congress with the sponsor(s) revealed only after a vote? I wrote to the experts who know the situation best, some of our universities’ top political science professors in the field of congressional studies.

My idea was immediately dismissed, but no need to worry-I have a point. Professor Eric Schickler, a professor at University of California, Berkeley, says “Members tend to use who sponsors a bill as a cue,” and keeping it anonymous, “might have the unintended impact of members not knowing what to sign onto.” Others, like Dr. Donald Green from Columbia, said since bills are drafted by committee staff, the sponsors would eventually be “out[ed].”

Notre Dame associate professor, Dr. Jeff Harden, also provided interesting insight, “Instead, it would reveal who are the most loyal members of each party and who are more likely to defect to the other side. Party leaders would observe this information and reward members accordingly. The result would be the extreme members of each party holding the most political power.”

The only benefit of the idea, according to Dr. Green, would be to “allow bills to emerge from the membership rather than the leadership, which could have important effects by eliminating ‘gate-keeping.’”

And now for the big picture–I may not have found the silver bullet to mitigate long-established partisanship, but I did learn that our nation’s gridlock may not be such a bad thing.

Our nation’s checks and balances and electoral processes prevent the passage of an extreme political agenda. Dr. Morris P. Fiorina explains this rationale in a Washington Post article titled, “Gridlock is bad. The alternative is worse.” He explores the idea that in America, there is not a “real” majority, as the election of members by the American pubic “by no means guarantees that the winners’ positions are those actually favored by a majority of the voters, only that those positions are likely to be preferred to those of the losers.” He continues, “Unleashing the majority would unleash a policy with nothing approximating majority support among voters.”

Professor Alexander Bateman at Cornell had a similar stance: “Certainly there are important issues I care about, and I find it extremely frustrating that these are blocked by gridlock; but then again, there are a lot of things others want that I really am opposed to, and I’m pleased to see these blocked by gridlock. Nor do I think ‘bipartisan solutions’ are all that valuable on their own. After all, the problem is not so much coming up with bipartisan solutions as it is agreeing on a bipartisan basis what the ‘problem’ is.”

Although gridlock has an upside, during times of existential threat, it cripples congressional cooperation, so I also asked the professors if they had any solutions of their own. Dr. Harden referenced ideas like the public financing of elections and term limits for members of Congress.

UC Santa Barbara Professor Eric Smith says, “An alternative you might consider is the elimination of the filibuster in the Senate. Most Senate action requires a filibuster-proof 60 vote majority. If we do away with it, the Senate will move faster and gridlock will be diminished. In fact, changing filibuster rules in recent years allowed President Trump to appoint a huge number of federal judges, far more than his predecessors.” He adds, “That example shows why some people favor the filibuster and gridlock. The filibuster slows down change in the federal government. Without it, policy could jump back and forth. Pres. Obama would have passed his climate change plan. Pres. Trump would have repealed it. And the next president may well have succeeded in passing it again. There are good arguments to be made both for and against eliminating the filibuster. It brings stability, which is another word for gridlock.”

To everyone who is fearful for the future of our democratic institutions, Dr. Bateman offers a hopeful reflection. “In short, we have a deeply divided country, at least among the politically engaged. Gridlock in such a scenario might not be ideal, but if we can’t agree then perhaps we should do nothing. This is unsatisfying, and in an era of climate change, profoundly dangerous. So what is to be done? Well, if the stakes are so high that we can’t have gridlock, and polarization is so high that we can’t even agree on the problem let alone a solution, then the only answer is politics: choosing a side, and doing everything in your power to convince others or comprehensively defeat your opponents. This of course means more partisanship and more and more intense polarization. But that describes most of American history, and is –in my view — the only way by which the country has ever progressed.”