Why Congress Has Reasons Not To Be Bipartsan

May 20, 2013
Originally published on May 20, 2013 5:19 am

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's look little more deeply at this narrative of scandal. NPR's Scott Horsley has more.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: When President Obama gets frustrated with the gridlock in Washington, he sometimes looks back wistfully to the decades after World War II. Back then, he suggests Republicans and Democrats managed to work together, despite their differences, building highways, protecting consumers, and educating generations of workers.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This consensus, this shared vision, led to the strongest economic growth and the largest middle-class that the world has ever known. It led to a shared prosperity.

HORSLEY: Political scientist Frances Lee of the University of Maryland notes the postwar period the president's talking about is also one in which Democrats enjoyed outsized majorities in Congress.

FRANCIS LEE: Democrats who were the majority party in Congress for 46 out of the first 50 years after the New Deal, these were large majorities, in many cases two-to-one majorities. So, under those conditions, Republicans did not see a path to majority status.

HORSLEY: As a result, Lee says, Republicans had little choice but to negotiate. But that began to change after Republicans unexpectedly took control of the Senate in 1980, and especially after the GOP won the House in the mid-1990s. Since then, control of both chambers has toggled back and forth, but the majority's margins have been smaller. So the minority party has always seen a chance of vaulting back into power.

Lee argues in a new paper that in that competitive atmosphere, lawmakers have a political incentive not to make deals with the other party, but rather to play up their disagreements, as with last week's symbolic House vote to repeal Obamacare.

LEE: It's almost been like an arms race. The two parties have brought on more and more people whose job it is to come in in the morning and try to think of the partisan attacks.

HORSLEY: At a Democratic fundraiser last week, Obama said he thought after beating Republicans in 2012, that might, quote, "break the fever." But, he admitted, it's not quite broken yet. Obama told the audience of Democratic faithful the country is being held back by the Capitol's hyper-partisan spirit.

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OBAMA: A spirit in Washington that is more concerned about the next election than the next generation. And that has to change.

LEE: Some pundits have suggested the president just needs to show more leadership, but Obama argues any high-profile effort on his part to twist arms or browbeat Republicans could be counterproductive.

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OBAMA: I think a lot of folks say, well, you know, if we look like we're being too cooperative or too chummy with the president, that might cause us problems.

HORSLEY: The president's most recent efforts at outreach have largely happened in private, at closed-door dinners or on the golf course, beyond the view of prying TV cameras. There are still a few areas where the two parties see an advantage in working together, most notably immigration, where Republicans' desire to reach out to Latinos trumps their desire to draw contrast with the president.

On most issues, though, Professor Lee says political motives tend to discourage compromise. That's not to minimize the genuine policy disagreements between the parties, but Lee says, often, those could be bridged in a way that would benefit both sides.

LEE: Liberals and conservatives can hash out deals, but partisan politics, on the other hand, can stand in the way of that, because whatever advantages Republicans disadvantages Democrats. A win for Obama is a loss for Republicans. It's an inexorable-end, grim logic that, you know, we need to acknowledge.

HORSLEY: Republican Senator Rob Portman says he still hopes to broker a big-budget deal with the president, something Obama says he wants, too. But Portman told a fiscal conference earlier this month there are political obstacles within his own party.

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SENATOR ROB PORTMAN: There are Republicans who believe that we should wait until we can have another election, perhaps getting a majority in 2014 in the Senate, perhaps getting a new president 2016. I don't think the country can wait.

HORSLEY: Political scientist Lee says that's the challenge of intense, two-party competition. Though often hailed as a sign of healthy democracy, it usually doesn't produce the kind of deal-making needed to solve serious problems. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.