Mississippi Republican Trent Lott recently recalled the Washington he moved to as a House aide in 1968: members of both parties would gather on Thursday evenings to play gin rummy, sip bourbon, and smoke cigars.
“They knew each other,” he said. “They respected each other.”
Three decades later — when he and South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle traded Senate leadership as their parties traded majorities — each repeatedly would ask the other: “Is there a way we can get this done together?”
Senators were highly partisan and had deep philosophical disagreements, he said. “It was pretty tough, and it got ugly sometimes.” But enough senators were willing to compromise that it was possible to find common ground and legislate.
Now, he said, relations between Democrats and Republicans in Washington are “as bad as I’ve ever seen.”
Lott made the comments at a recent conference on “Taking the Poison out of Partisanship” sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank that tries to bridge the gap that Lott described.
Four former Senate majority leaders — Democrats Daschle and George Mitchell, and Republicans Bob Dole and Howard Baker — founded the center in 2007, when extreme partisanship was having “a corrosive effect on our ability to govern," Baker said at the time. In launching the organization, Mitchell added that “we need to use the best ideas from right and left to address key issues.”
Since, the American political landscape has become even more polarized. A National Journal study of congressional votes in 2010 found that every Republican senator was more conservative than every Democrat, and just five House Republicans voted more liberally than the most conservative House Democrat. In some of the most important votes of 2009 and 2010, no Republican supported health-care reform or the economic stimulus package.
Meanwhile, the Bipartisan Policy Center has attracted support from across the political spectrum. Lott is a senior fellow, as are three other GOP former members of Congress (Utah’s Robert Bennett, New Mexico’s Pete Domenici, and Tennessee’s Bill Frist), two Democrats (North Dakota’s Byron Dorgan and former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman), and retired Marine Corps general James L. Jones. Three Democrats and three Republicans sit on its advisory council of former governors. Its board of directors includes Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s energy program, and John Rowe, chairman and CEO of the Exelon Corp., one of the country’s largest power companies.
Financial support comes from 16 foundations, three dozen corporations, and a dozen individual philanthropists. Starting with a staff of six, it has grown to a staff of 60 with a $19 million annual budget.
Putting together panels of experts and former government officials, the organization churns out policy papers on issues ranging from housing to national security to climate change, and it promotes them on Capitol Hill. The organization grew out of the National Commission on Energy Policy, a bipartisan group of experts from government and the private sector.
Cavanagh said he originally joined the energy panel because he was attracted to the idea that “you could have a vividly diverse group and you could get at least a partial consensus that would help unstick a quagmire in Washington.”
He gets mixed reactions from other environmentalists because of the compromises needed to reach bipartisan agreements. “Sometimes, imperfect packages are assembled in efforts to find a common solution,” he explained. “This at times results in recommendations that important environmental constituencies do not agree with.”
Prominent panelists generate media interest in the reports. A debt-reduction study — led by former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, a Republican, and Democrat Alice Rivlin, who was the White House budget director in the first Clinton administration — drew attention for its bold and comprehensive nature. Their proposals included raising taxes and cutting popular spending programs and tax deductions.
The debt-reduction panel epitomized the center’s approach. A diverse group convenes, makes compromises, and produces proposals with something for everyone to like — and hate. “Not every member agrees with every element of this plan,” the panel warned at the front of its report. But they had proved that “at this time of political uncertainty, a bipartisan group can craft a comprehensive and viable blueprint to tackle the nation’s most serious economic challenges.”
Turning the plan into law was another matter. As USA Today reported about the report’s release in November 2010: “Liberals and conservatives agreed on something Wednesday: a new, far-reaching, bipartisan plan to balance the budget and stabilize the national debt goes too far.” Liberals attacked cuts to Social Security, for instance. Conservatives criticized the higher taxes.
There was “no expectation” that Congress would embrace the plan wholesale, said Bipartisan Policy Center President Jason Grumet. But “when there is a solution, it will look very much like what we proposed.”
It’s not surprising that bipartisan ideas are hard to sell in such a starkly divided government, said Gary Jacobson, who studies polarization in Congress as a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego.
The U.S. form of government requires bipartisanship because it seldom experiences the one-party control that’s found in parliamentary systems, he said. Yet “partisans on both sides have pretty much dug in their heels — particularly on the right.”
Partly as a result, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s successes are found in parts of legislation and in how some issues are discussed, Grumet explained. Even though their proposals don’t become law in their entirety, he said, the former government officials who participate on the panels exert influence on Capitol Hill.
He offered two high-profile examples:
The energy commission, which became part of the center, contributed to Congress raising motor vehicle mileage standards and creating the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy. And Congress approved a reduction in the 2011 Social Security tax — which the center’s debt-reduction report proposed to provide a short-term boost to the economy.
Center recommendations also have improved the way some members of Congress are approaching transportation issues, Grumet said.
“I think we can say with confidence that we are shaping the conversation,” he said.
“Gridlock is in no one’s interest,” said Smith College government professor Howard Gold, who recently co-authored a book that argues polarized parties can be healthy for democracy because they give voters choices. Speaking of the bipartisan center, he added, “I think it’s a terrific idea to encourage healthy discourse.”
Grumet is optimistic that polarization eventually will provide its own demise.
“The combination of being frustrated about the inability to craft public policy — and the sense of peril that all incumbents will feel based upon the profound frustration the general population is expressing — will create some incentives for them to be working together,” he said. “If people start voting as they poll — which is they want Congress to get stuff done — that will be the most powerful incentive.
“You can’t have a 9 percent approval rating for much longer and not start to see some people lose their seats.”