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Wonkology: Bipartisan

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April 2, 2014

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Ongoing political efforts characterized by the eager and willing participation of both political parties; a once-noble calling for elected officials that has fallen out of favor.

A laughing matter?

Sad but true, if a member of the opposition were to approach a legislator with a genuine attempt at finding a bipartisan solution today, the logical reaction would be to think that it was an attempt at an April Fools' prank. Often fashionable in prior generations of the Republic, the practice (from the Latin "can't we all just get along") now suffers from serious disuse. At its best, bipartisanship illustrates cooperation among legislators and other elected officials and thus enables the resolution of countless thorny issues of significance. Today, well, not so much.

All kidding aside

American political parties often (or occasionally, depending on the era) found common ground by accepting terms unfavorable to their side to strike a deal with the opposition. An early example in the United States was the Connecticut Compromise, which managed to balance the interests of the larger and smaller states in the formation and composition of Congress. Other instances of bipartisanship include passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Tax Reform Act of 1986, the Welfare Reform of 1996, and McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform.

Where did it go so wrong?

The historic pendulum has swung away from bipartisanship and toward polarization over the last twenty years. Members of Congress return to their districts as quickly as possible, thus limiting opportunities to forge relationships among colleagues and families. The presence and influence of moderates in both parties has dwindled, and relations between the Executive and Legislative branches continues to deteriorate.

Is there hope that bipartisanship might one day return to Washington? With passage of the Murray-Ryan budget deal, we have reason for cautious optimism. But the 2014 Congressional mid-terms are just seven months away, and it seems only reasonable to expect the parties to reposition themselves in their corners to score political points. One of the most legislatively-productive and bipartisan periods in recent memory followed the 2010 mid-term elections, however, when Congress passed several pieces of meaningful legislation in the lame duck session. Keep your eyes on this year's lame duck, which could once again present a temporary return to bipartisanship.


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