Is bipartisanship Congress’ New Year’s resolution?
Probably not — or so predict the numbers.
A few weeks ago, my editors at Congressional Quarterly asked me to sift through Congress’s 2007 votes, look for patterns, and figure out what the numbers said about the way the House and Senate did business last year.
Not surprisingly, by several measures Democrats and Republicans were more divided than ever before. According to CQ’s study, the parties in the Senate split on 60 percent of all roll call votes. And in the House, most Democrats voted against most Republicans during 62 percent of all roll call votes.
That’s a trend that has been building for several years now, and the ramifications are pretty straightforward, say political analysts in Washington. The more the parties refuse to work with each other, the harder it is for Congress to get things done.
The conundrum begs a fairly obtuse question, one that I felt a little foolish asking while I was reporting the story: Can partisanship get any worse and what will it take to change course?
For the most part, people like Tom Mann, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, say Congress isn’t likely to drop everything and make working across the aisle a priority this year.
That’s because there’s little incentive to give either party a victory during an election year. And with a president in the White House who is not afraid to use his veto pen, Democrats are facing an additional challenge when it comes to getting things done.
A real sea change will require new leadership in the White House, Mann said.
“It’s all about whether you have an ideologue in the White House, or someone who is inclined to build broader coalitions,” he said, adding that Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama or John McCain have a reputation for reaching out to members of the opposite party.
Others say an amenable president won’t necessarily cure Congressional stalemate. It will take a stronger majority for either party in the Senate, where Republicans last year successfully employed procedural moves to block many bills, to ensure that more legislation is enacted, said Michele Swers, a political science professor at Georgetown University.
Even though the academics think the likelihood of bipartisanship is looking grim, lawmakers think otherwise.
“At the end of last year, I think there was a widespread feeling that, ‘Hey, we can actually pass things with minimal political sparring,'” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell after outlining a series of bills, including one dealing with health insurance, that Republicans think will get widespread support from both parties.
“I think you’ll see that again shortly,” he said.
The first test for bipartisanship has already arrived. In the coming days, the House is expected to unveil a new economic stimulus plan that will likely include a mix of Republican and Democratic priorities.
Everyone agrees that the bill should be written, and by all accounts, it’s likely to happen quickly — just so long as lawmakers don’t revert to their 2007 ways.