By Lee H. Hamilton
April 13, 2022
Is bipartisanship dead? Sometimes it seems like it is. Watching Democrats and Republicans fight over nearly everything, you’d think they can’t agree on the difference between day and night.
Witness the partisan reaction to President Joe Biden’s nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. An eminently qualified jurist who would be the first Black woman on the nation’s highest court, she faced nearly unanimous opposition from Republicans.
When I was first elected to Congress, Supreme Court nominees were approved by voice vote in the Senate, without even a record of who voted for and against. Later, three of President Ronald Reagan’s appointees were approved unanimously. Things have changed.
Look beyond the headlines, however, and you’ll find evidence that bipartisanship is still alive, if not always well. Republicans and Democrats may deadlock over high-profile matters, but they can still work across the aisle to make progress on many issues.
Bipartisanship is popular with the public, which likes to know that legislation has support from both parties. Polls find that overwhelming majorities of the American people consider bipartisanship important. And for good reason. It’s very difficult, in our system of government, to get anything passed – and to get it implemented – without some bipartisan support. Legislation doesn’t need overwhelmingly bipartisan support to be effective, but even a few votes from the other side can make a difference. Bipartisanship isn’t just popular; it’s necessary.
Yet there isn’t any doubt that we live in a politically polarized time, and what we see in Washington reflects that. Thanks to social media and partisan cable news outlets, Americans increasingly live in partisan bubbles, having little contact with people with different views.
Congress reflects those divisions, and it can from time to time, exacerbate them. This is a critical election year, with control of the House and Senate up for grabs. Politicians know that stoking outrage by attacking their opponents is a good way to raise campaign funds, boost turnout, and win elections. Conflict gets attention, and attention can increase the benefits of conflict.
Often in the past, U.S. politicians fought bitterly over domestic issues but united around a bipartisan foreign policy. A popular maxim after World War II was that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” That’s no longer the case, and it hasn’t been for a while.
Certainly, Americans have been united in their outrage at Russia’s unprovoked and brutal war against Ukraine. Nearly every member of Congress condemned it, Congress approved billions of dollars in military and humanitarian aid for Ukrainians, and Republicans and Democrats mostly supported Biden’s imposition of sanctions on Russia. But lawmakers struggled to respond legislatively, and some Republicans cited the war to question Biden’s leadership.
Partisan headwinds blocked some of Biden’s domestic priorities, including ambitious efforts to create jobs, fight climate change, protect voting rights, reform immigration laws and strengthen gun control. But other worthwhile measures have won support from both Democrats and Republicans, often without a lot of attention.
Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, adding the language to a government spending bill. It overwhelmingly passed legislation to reform Postal Service finances. Both the House and Senate have passed versions of a bipartisan act aimed at investing in semiconductor production and helping the U.S. compete with China.
Congress banned companies from forcing their employees to settle sexual assault or harassment claims with arbitration, a practice that hushed up the claims and kept them out of court. And the idea of banning stock trading by members of Congress has gained traction.
These bipartisan success stories – and there are others – often required lawmakers to compromise and work with their political adversaries, but that’s the way our system of government was designed to work. Bipartisanship isn’t dead, and by strengthening it we will make our political system work better.