The Bi-Partisanship Fallacy

There’s a school of thought which greatly admires “bi-partisan” approaches to solving political problems. The idea of representatives and senators putting aside their differences to “reach across the aisle” and work together seems admirably, if only because our social training all points towards the importance of compromise in order to get along with others.

However, I’d like to question whether there are often pieces of legislation which are genuinely bi-partisan.

Some legislation is essentially non-partisan. Instituting a national alert system to help track down kidnapped children, for instance, is hardly something which has a major political faction aligned against it.

In other cases, there’s legislation which applies to factions within each party — a result of the fact that our two major political parties include sub-factions which disagree with each other on major issues. For instance, “bi-partisan” immigration reform might draw support both from the business faction within the GOP and the pro-immigration faction within the Democratic Party, while being opposed by labor focused Democrats and immigration focused Republicans.

Often, though, a supposedly bi-partisan bill is actually a bill which is very much of one political philosophy or the other, but which is for some reason able to draw enough support from the most “moderate” members of the other party, sometimes by watering down its provisions.

For instance, on the current health care legislation, the bill itself is pretty clearly a bill coming from a Democratic Party mindset. It rests on the four pillars of guaranteed issue, individual insurance mandate, community rating and subsidies for those who can’t afford their own coverage. Once the idea of a “public option” (which had been a sop of sorts to those on the left who would much rather have seen a single payer plan) was dropped, there’s really not much else that can be done within the context of the bill’s structure to make it less expensive or more amenable to a conservative approach. The changes which have been made in the name of bi-partisanship (reducing fines for ignoring the mandate and not having insurance, etc.) don’t really make the structure any more attractive to conservatives, but do make it less likely to work if liberals are actually correct that such a system could work. (Rather than being a dud as it’s been in Massachusetts.)

Similarly, in the fight over the stimulus package — the “bi-partisan” solution offered to bridge between those who thought there should be a massive spending-based stimulus and those who didn’t was, “How about if we make it a little less massive.” But really, if your two positions are, “We need to have a massive spending-based stimulus” and “We don’t need any stimulus, and the debt will hurt the country” saying “We’ll spend 700B instead of 1T” isn’t really a compromise between those two positions.

To the extent that the two parties really do represent different political philosophies, bi-partisan solutions are in fact pretty rare. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since if two governing philosophies suggest two different solutions based on differing ideas of what works — something situated halfway in between (or a half-gutted implementation of one party’s idea) is less likely to be satisfactory than either extreme.

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  1. However, I’d like to question whether there are often pieces of legislation which are genuinely bi-partisan.

    Legislation supported by Olympia Snowe + Democrats = “bipartisan”!

  2. I have a dim view of ‘bi-partisanship’

    To paraphrase Tom Woods: Americans have two parties- the stupid party and the evil party. Once in a while, they come together to do things both stupid and evil. This is called ‘bi-partisanship’.

  3. I’m inclined to agree with Anthony. Any bill that passes overwhelmingly is liable to be a bad idea (the a national alert system being a case in point).

    Judging by common usage, I would say that a “bi-partisan” is a Democrat initiative with some Republican support. Republican initiatives don’t count as bi-partisan, even if they have the support of lots of Democrats.

  4. Republican initiatives don’t count as bi-partisan, even if they have the support of lots of Democrats.

    That, or if there is a Republican initiative which gained support from some Democrats and actually worked out, it becomes the property of the Democrats, such as “Clinton’s welfare reform”.

  5. In California we have a governor who does nothing when it comes to the will of the people and yet screams out in defense of his policies, “we have reached accross the aisle and have come to an agreement.” It seems to me that many times bi-partisanship is just an excuse to do what they want, the people be “darned”.

  6. Obama lauded Olympia Snowe for her support of a ‘bi-partisan’ bill…does one ‘yes’ vote from a Republican make the bill bi-partisan? I don’t think so…

  7. NCLB seemed to be bipartisan (stupid and evil it has been called by some, of course). One could argue that Obama’s inclusion of tax cuts as such a large portion of the stimulus package was a failed attempt to make it bipartisan.

  8. I thought everything from Wasington was bi-partisan since I can’t tell the difference between the Demoncrats and the Republican’ts. Is there a difference?

    Would that we had two parties rather than the tax more and tax a lot more party and the kill babies and proud of it and kill babies but pretend to have a problem with it party.

    Does anyone really fall for this malarkey?

  9. I can’t tell the difference between the Demoncrats and the Republicant’s. Is there a difference?

    Well, you can’t tell the difference between certain Catholics and Protestants these days; so, it ain’t surprising.

    Besides, one need only look to California’s governor: a Demoncrat in RepubliCath’s clothing!

  10. To my knowledge, the only good thing about the Governator in whose state I am glad to no longer be a resident is that he’s not Grey Davis — but that’s a pretty meager accomplishment, and people have gotten rightly tired of it by now.

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