Bipartisanship In Congress Can Start Small, But It Must Start

Democrats and Republicans sitting together during Obama's speech is just the first step towards bipartisanship.

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I like to think of the day of the State of the Union as America's annual civic sabbath, a periodic opportunity to gather as a community and reflect on our progress. Unfortunately, this year's assessment won't be as positive as we'd like. Certainly 2012 is not 1863 or 1917 or 1941, but it's still hard to shake the overwhelming sense that we face urgent challenges and our political institutions might be too broken to address them. Despite the range of economic, fiscal, social, and environmental problems on our horizon, over the past year, nearly the only bills that Congress and the president have managed to pass have named post offices, shuffled public land ownership, or extended expiring (or better yet, already expired) statutes.

Tonight, some bipartisan pairs of legislators have agreed to sit together during the speech as a gesture of unity. I'm glad that they are doing so, but what would impress me much more is a promise to collaborate on something substantive, no matter how small. I'd like to hear about bipartisan pairs of legislators who would jointly commit to pursuing one solution to one real problem, regardless of how narrow, promising to work at it until it becomes law. It could be closing a tiny tax loophole, promoting small business exports to Belgium, or streamlining the processing of veterans' education benefits. Anything that would begin to clear the legislative paper jam, restore Congress to working order, and prove to us citizens that the system is still capable of functioning. 

[Read the U.S. News debate: Was 2011 One of the Worst Years for the U.S. Government in American History? ]

This week, I thought a lot about my first boss in Washington, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat from New York. One of his defining characteristics was an uncompromising insistence on intellectual honesty, even when that honesty was inconvenient for his political party. My old boss told the truth as he saw it, even when people didn't want to hear it. Especially when people didn't want to hear it. That commitment to intellectual honesty helped him find his way to the middle on many occasions, and sometimes he found a partner there with whom he could solve problems.

In 1983, Senator Moynihan and his friend Sen. Bob Dole, a Republican from Kansas, served on a commission tasked with rescuing Social Security from an imminent collapse. The battle lines back then were drawn the same way they are now: Republicans opposed any tax increases and Democrats opposed any benefit cuts. A deadline approached at which time the government wouldn't be able to send out senior citizens' checks, and Dole signaled that he might be amenable to some movement on taxes if Democrats reciprocated with an agreement to raise the retirement age. Moynihan swiftly moved to work with his friend on a compromise that involved painful concessions on both sides but that most members could reluctantly accept. They also struck a bargain with congressional leadership to guarantee that neither party would run negative campaign ads attacking a member for voting in favor of the agreement. Ultimately, the rescue package passed and the legislation restored Social Security's solvency for decades. The tax increase didn't destroy the economy or spell the end of civilization as we know it, and the increased retirement age didn't shred the social safety net or ruin the lives of elderly people. Compromise happened, and governing ensued.

[Read Mort Zuckerman: Social Security Has Reached a Tipping Point]

The Social Security deal wasn't anyone's ideal solution, but it was pragmatic and effective. Instead of sacrificing people in service of political dogma, legislators figured out how to solve a problem and uphold their responsibilities. It's disappointing to try to look for the Doles and Moynihans in the current Congress, the individuals who will break out of party lockstep to carry on the business of governing and strive to meet our national challenges instead of using party labels as an excuse for failing to accomplish anything.

I'm not arguing here that Moynihan and Dole were perfect or that they would be able to fix what's wrong with the Congress right now. The political environment wasn't easy when they served, and it's become even more difficult since they left office. But I have to believe that more contributions like theirs, even on small-scale issues, might ease the sense that politicians in Washington care more about skillfully casting blame for political problems than actually solving them. At a time when Congress's job approval rating is at an appalling 13 percent, restoring even a little bit of that faith is important for the country. Maybe Congress fundamentally can't cope with enormous issues like Social Security reform anymore, but it would be really good for the nation and the economy if legislators could try to tackle projects more ambitious than naming post offices. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Tonight, it will be good to see bipartisan pairs of legislators coming together to watch the State of the Union address. But as voters—as citizens—we should demand more. If legislators can't commit to offer even one successful, bipartisan solution to a problem, they lack either the imagination, the tenacity, or the people skills to do their jobs effectively, and they should flunk out of Congress and be replaced with more capable individuals. If solving problems seems like too much to ask of Congress, the question isn't why the institution's approval rating is so low—it's why 13 percent of the public still believes that the legislative branch is doing a good job.

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