The Bipartisanship Trap

Terry H. Schwadron

June 24, 2021

Over multiple extended weeks, we’ve recognized the havoc and un-resolvedness of Congressional compromise-seeking on infrastructure, voting rights, changes to policing, even a commission to look at what was behind the Jan. 6 riot. There is reported movement on infrastructure, but only because the White House wants to score a win for bipartisanship, not for its full infrastructure goals.

Get ready for more of the same on rights bills affecting discrimination over gender orientation, gun controls and the ability of government to pay for itself beyond a deadline on July 31.

What has emerged is a pattern that looks much like a trap: In response to actual issues, the Biden administration comes up with a proposal, and congressional Republicans balk. Even one or two Democrats insist on changes in attempts to lure enough votes in the nearly evenly split Senate to pass the 60-vote filibuster requirement. The White House staff demurs, and engages in lengthy negotiations, first with its own, then with those few “moderate” Republicans who might make a difference. Then Republican leader Mitch McConnell says No anyway, and the original proposals either never make it to the Senate floor or survive only as shells of their once robust selves.

That’s what we saw this week with a failure to garner enough Senators even to agree whether to debate a bill on voter rights. If you want an infrastructure deal, Republicans are telling Biden, you can have it for the asking — just so long as you neither ask for money about climate change or “human infrastructure” and don’t seek to pay for it by raising taxes on the wealthy or corporations.

Either way, it is Republicans deciding the national agenda, for no good common welfare reasons other than opposing Joe Biden’s presidency. The Mitch McConnell promise to block everything Biden wants is surprisingly close to real.

More Waves of Gridlock

We’re already hearing rumblings of the next waves of similar washout on their slow roll towards shore:

On equal rights for gay, lesbian and transgender Americans, hopes for action in a one-vote Democratic-majority Senate look dim. There is significant Republican opposition on cultural grounds to recognizing trans issues, in particular, and about how legally to carve out rights for religious institutional exemptions from any law. Partisanship in Congress stands in contrast to the wide-ranging support for LGBTQ rights among the public at large, in corporate America, and even in Supreme Court which last year banned employment discrimination on the basis of sexual identity. The usual suspects on both sides of the aisle seem not even willing for the issue to come up.

On gun control legislation, even Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., the consistent lead sponsor of gun limit bills, says Democrats must prepare to vote on a scaled-down proposals that may seek to boost background checks for firearms buyers just to get something passed, rather than ways to require universal checks to bridge loopholes in current law or to try to get assault-style guns off the street. Again, this kind of gun proposal polls much better with the public than with members of the Senate, where there seems little interest in addressing studies showing at least 13 percent of gun owners reporting that they bought a gun with no check. And, again, Murphy does not have 100% of the Democrats on board.

On continuing government operations, the 2019 agreement during the Trump administration to let Congress borrow money runs out on July 31. That means we’ll see the usual, partisan fight over “extraordinary measures to keep the government solvent,” along with its annual attacks on domestic spending for various social services programs. However the specifics align this year, it will be contentious, partisan and a restatement of now well-worn mottos and themes by both sides. We can assuredly predict an outcome less than ideal, something that will once again kick this can a few months down the road.

Not Running the Government

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about American democracy balancing only precariously on the brink of a darker future, about the rise of authoritarianism, attempts to squash voting parity.

What we’ve heard less is that as a day-to-day enterprise, the American experiment is simply slowing to a crawl in many ways. Our partisan desires to win have prompted a new version of seeking bipartisanship at all costs. And that goal of actual bipartisanship has proved over and over to be a mirage, a political version of Lucy from Charlie Brown cartoons repeatedly taking away the football altogether at the last possible, practical moment.

Se, we are resorting to emergency thinking in place of working towards common ends: Emergency vaccine approvals. Temporary budget and spending authority. A constant, if less-than-legitimate recount, restatement or “audit” of the results of the last election. Name-calling and partisan labeling have replaced substantive thought about virtually any public issue; it now has become more important whether the Jan. 6 Trump mob attack are described as an “insurrection” attempt, which is was, or some kind of minimal impact street protest, which it wasn’t, than it is to get at the facts of what and who gave rise to that day to prevent a repeat.

Declaring “bipartisanship” a goal in itself has made Sen. Joe Manchin an oversized ego and influencer than someone who can actually help solve a problem, and, at least from where I sit, the myriad self-negotiations among Democrats or even his own small group of “moderates.” Is a useful ploy for Minority Leader McConnell to use to deflect any actual frustration that he is causing the sitting administration.

All of this non-progress could disappear overnight if the filibuster is jettisoned. In its place, we might have decisions that are supported by a majority of voters.

There is nothing in the Constitution about filibusters. Indeed, it emerged and has been used most frequently since the mid-1800s to oppose any anti-slavery and civil rights legislation. At least then, the senators were required to stand on their feet for the full day and argue until enough votes could be found for cloture. Re-read Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate for insightful history about how then Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson used his Senate powers and compare that to what passes as a washed out version of compromise and resistance today.

Finding a governing majority also could be addressed by elections that now consistently produce results that are too split to be effective. If elections are going to matter, then we should use the results to set national direction. What we have now is wishy-washy and consistent gridlock, and shows that governing is just more political for power-holding.

Bipartisanship is not the goal. Solving problems is the goal.

We ought to get to it.



Journalist, musician, community volunteer