After the recent midterm election, when it became apparent that Americans would have a divided new Congress, it wasn’t long before the word bipartisan started showing up as an adjective to modify a whole host of legislative proposals and discussions. While in many cases the word has been aspirational rather than descriptive—as in, “the other side should follow our lead in agreeing to this”—it has often also been used as a magic modifier in an effort to reduce criticism and grease the skids to more political support for proposals.
Unfortunately, especially with the country as sharply divided as it is now, what is advertised as political efforts at bipartisanship often founders on the shoals of claims that only “comprehensive” reforms are worthy of support. And President Biden’s State of the Union address, reported as beginning with “an appeal for bipartisanship” and a call for Congress to “pass comprehensive immigration reform,” is a good illustration. Unfortunately, calls or proposals for bipartisan comprehensive reform proposals often justify Americans’ apprehension.
Consider some common abuses that grow out of the supposed need for bipartisan comprehensive political reforms or plans.
Groups that oppose a policy because they think it will harm them disguise their self-interested objections by claiming reform fails to be comprehensive enough. That sounds far less selfish. It also carries the unjustified implication that more-comprehensive reforms, of the sort they would support, would make such harms disappear.
Groups whose agendas are somehow connected with or related to proposals that have some prospect of passage, but who have not been brought or bought into the supporting coalition, use these proposals as levers to advance their interests. They hold their support hostage to extract what they want, as with “must pass” legislation, so often transformed into “Christmas tree” bills. They rationalize their demand to be included in the sausage making by simply seeking more-comprehensive reform rather than “insufficient” piecemeal approaches.
This mechanism then complements efforts to put together political coalitions of barely over 50 percent to jointly extract benefits from the rest of their fellow citizens. Unfortunately, the results of such efforts may be bipartisan in the sense that just enough of the most cheaply buyable members of the other side were induced to agree, but they are not bipartisan in the sense that there is general agreement about it. Neither do they advance our general welfare in the sense our constitution intended (benefiting all Americans, not political winners at political losers’ expense).
Politicians looking to extract more political payoffs from interested parties, even those who have no direct interest in the proposed legislation, also hide behind “comprehensive” rhetoric. Particularly when outcomes are in doubt, delays for reconsideration, further negotiations, more public input, hearings, etc., can always be created in the name of more comprehensiveness. But these tactics primarily provide another opportunity to get “players” (swing voters) and thus put more into the pot in the game of political poker.
Good examples include entitlements, in which the government has promised benefits far in excess of the proposed taxes to fund them (with Medicare and Social Security topping the list). Such situations are unsustainable to the tune of tens of trillions of dollars, but there is no fair way out of such situations. Sustaining them requires that some will have to bear substantial new unequal and unanticipated burdens.
But speaking of the need for comprehensive reform allows politicians to dodge the hot seat of having to offer solutions where no good ones may really exist (or where better ones than they have in mind exist, but they want to keep them off the table). Politicians can talk about how much they care and the urgency of reform, but they strategically wait for others to offer specific proposals (or criticize them for not doing so), then reject each one that would hurt anyone who might vote for them (i.e., every actual proposal) as not comprehensive enough.
Similar results also arise when the gains received by the winners from policies have been capitalized into asset prices via sale (e.g., agricultural price supports that pushed up agricultural land prices, or taxi restrictions that pushed up the value of existing permits), making even-handed reform impossible. When A has already benefitted from such a policy and then sells the asset to B, the expected future benefits of the current policy are incorporated in the price B pays. Ending the policies afterward would unfairly harm B without undoing the windfall A received, compromising “comprehensive” reform efforts.
Still other common examples are in the many areas where politics divides into an adamant “A” camp and an equally adamant “not A” camp. Politicians can endorse or vow to push reforms, but they can evade accountability because no comprehensive policy proposal ever makes it through the political gauntlet, which can always conveniently be blamed on opponents’ intransigence.
Supposed searches for comprehensive political reform are also frequently inconsistent with the process actually employed. If the intent was really to seek better, broader reforms beyond just barely meeting the 50-percent-plus-one threshold, you wouldn’t need surprise and closed-door secrecy (which often is extended to all those not part of the created cabal, as well as to all the citizens members are supposed to be representing) to keep the process out of view and avoid outside accountability until it is too late to do anything about it. Honest attempts to benefit all Americans wouldn’t keep the details—without which they cannot be evaluated—under a “cone of silence,” exclude the “other” party and the public from any involvement, or force votes before representatives have had time to read, much less digest, the bills considered by lawmakers.
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