No concept gets quite as much abuse in American politics as partisanship. Those in power love to blame it for stopping legislation from advancing. When Senator Jim Bunning shut down the Senate to prevent a bill extending unemployment benefits from going forward, the White House blasted the action as “blatant, partisan obstructionism.” The opposition in turn attacks as “partisan” the legislation it obstructs. In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announcing their opposition to financial reform, members of the Senate Republican Caucus declared: “We are united in our opposition to the partisan legislation reported by the Senate Banking Committee.”
The use of “partisan” as an epithet is rooted in two impulses. The first is the common perception that the electorate finds partisanship unsavory; the second is that it prevents Congress from getting things done. As President Obama put it to a House Republican retreat in January, “I don’t think [the American people] want more gridlock. I don’t think they want more partisanship,” with the connection between the two left unexamined.
Neither of these ideas, however, holds up to much scrutiny. The voters certainly say they want politicians to be less partisan. Polls show that majorities of Americans think Republicans and Democrats in Congress—as well as the Obama administration—should make more of an effort to work across party lines. This is curious, given that voters’ behavior is just as partisan as that of their representatives in Congress. The popular idea that there is a large group of swing voters representing the true will of the country is, by most metrics, false. The number of independent voters who actually change their minds in elections hovers around and below 10 percent of the electorate, sneaking a little above that in 2008. The rest of the electorate is composed of Democrats, Republicans, and independents who behave exactly like Democrats and Republicans. Although I’m sure this small group genuinely wants more bipartisan cooperation, I’m less sure that actual partisans, and may-as-well-be partisans, actually feel the same way.
But let’s trust poll results for a minute and conclude that partisans and partisan independents do actually want their representatives to work with the other party and that they don’t just bash partisanship when asked because “working together” sounds nice. If partisan loyalties were relaxed, would these partisans actually get what they want?
Let’s say these partisans attack partisanship because they want less gridlock. This is an attractive notion, especially with a Senate GOP using its strong party discipline to block most legislation in its tracks. But if one considers the history of health-care reform, it was actually an absence of party discipline that dragged the process on longer. Before the passage of the Senate bill, it was not an unwillingness of the Democrats and Republicans to work together that delayed the bill. It was the complaints of two senators in the Democratic caucus—Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman—about the bill’s abortion language and its inclusion of a public option that kept it from being finished. Similarly, during the final passage of the bill in the House last month, the struggle was not to craft a bipartisan compromise. It was to get a group of renegade Democratic congressmen, led by Bart Stupak, to support the bill in spite of its abortion language. Were there more party discipline in either body, the bill would have passed much faster as Democratic legislators fell in line. Instead, weak party identification held the bill up for an absurd length of time.
For a comparison, consider what would have happened in a developed country with more typical levels of party discipline. For example, in the United Kingdom, with the exception of occasional “free votes” having to do with religious and cultural issues, members of Parliament are expected to vote with their party. If they do not, the party has the power to, without a primary election, strip the member of his place in the next election. A British Bart Stupak, then, could not have credibly threatened to vote against health-care reform, unless he was willing to give up his political career or switch parties to do so. The process would have gone more quickly and included fewer carve-outs.
Similarly, those who hate earmarks, and other special deals for the states and districts of members of Congress, ought to embrace party discipline by the same logic. Now, members can threaten to vote against a piece of legislation unless a kickback is included, and the leadership has every reason to take them seriously. If the leadership had the power to prevent the reelection of members who vote against the party’s agenda, holding legislation hostage like this would not be possible.
It is comforting to think of bipartisan governance as a clean, cooperative process. In reality, however, it is far slower and dirtier than a process with strong party discipline. If one wants Congress to get things done with a minimum of corruption, enforcing party discipline is the place to start.
Dylan R. Matthews ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.