By Austin Cannon
Bipartisan solutions is the theme for our first week in Washington, and today we listened to a lecture from Grover Norquist in the somewhat toasty basement of The Washington Center. Norquist, the conservative, government-shrinking president of Americans for Tax Reform, mentioned how both parties have been traveling in opposite directions on the political spectrum, farther and farther from each other. Not the best environment for compromise. And yes, partisanship is easily to blame for Congress’s recent lack of production. There are, however, still opportunities for Congress to pass bipartisan legislation.
For example, Norquist mentioned crime reform as a prime chance for bipartisanship. Think about it. Everyone (except criminals) dislikes crime. Elected officials will always consider legislation that could potentially prevent crime and ease burdens on overcrowded prisons. Back in July, Senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) cosponsored a sentencing reform bill that would try to keep kids out of the adult prison system. The bill stalled in committee, but it remains an example of at least an attempt at bipartisanship.
But what about a successful attempt at bipartisan legislation? Sure thing. Also in July, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. In total, only nine (!) Senators and Representatives voted against the bill. It updates the Work Investment Act, and, as Mark Edwards notes in the above article, the bill would help young people and displaced workers learn the skills and technology vital to jobs in the 21st century. Cosponsors included (now former) Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and six more cosponsors from the House and Senate — four Democrats and four Republicans in all.
The main point Norquist hammered home this morning was that bipartisan compromise does not originate in what he called the “mushy middle.” It comes from serious players on the left and right coming together. Harkin and Isakson are respected leaders in their parties, while Booker and Paul have both emerged during their first terms. The point? No one considers legislation from a nobody congressman that spends his time in that “mushy middle,” not firmly taking a side. Bipartisan legislation, Norquist noted, needs leadership from established members from both sides of the aisle.
How might they agree on legislation? The result of a bill could do multiple things that benefit both sides. Even though it’s not a piece of legislation, I found an example in an episode of The West Wing. A possible Democratic nominee for the Supreme Court (Glenn Close) discusses the Defense of Marriage Act with a potential Republican nominee (William Fichtner). They both agree DOMA should be overturned. But not for the same reasons.
Close’s character would overturn DOMA because she thinks, like most Democrats, people should be allowed to marry whomever they’d like. Fichtner’s judge, following conservative thinking, would overturn it on the basis of it being too much federal oversight into state affairs — the government expanding beyond its authority. Different reasons for the same outcome. A fictional example, but it still makes my point. So, yes, Democrats and Republicans will occasionally agree on the reasoning of legislation. If not, each party has to choose its own motivation to support that bill for it to become bipartisan.