Crafting Policy to Bridge the Red-Blue Divide
December 14, 2011
Before the scorched earth political reality we know today, Washington, DC was the mecca for horse trading, deal making, and IOU’s were traded like baseball cards. All this political dealing was done in back rooms and away from the cameras and media. The idea wasn’t to win or bury the other guy. The idea was to get things done, in a way that kept the game alive till the next round. Everybody got a little and gave a little.
There are more than a few politicians who want to bring those days back.
Hopefully, their constituents who have become accustomed to the blood sport can be made to feel the same way.
The Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank founded four years ago by four former U.S Senate majority leaders, works to overcome political polarization.
Mississippi Republican Trent Lott recently recalled the Washington he moved to as a House aide in 1968: members of both parties would gather on Thursday evenings to play gin rummy, sip bourbon, and smoke cigars.“They knew each other,” he said. “They respected each other.”
Three decades later — when he and South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle traded Senate leadership as their parties traded majorities — each repeatedly would ask the other: “Is there a way we can get this done together?”
Senators were highly partisan and had deep philosophical disagreements, he said. “It was pretty tough, and it got ugly sometimes.” But enough senators were willing to compromise that it was possible to find common ground and legislate.
Now, he said, relations between Democrats and Republicans in Washington are “as bad as I’ve ever seen.”
Lott made the comments at a recent conference on “Taking the Poison out of Partisanship” sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank that tries to bridge the gap that Lott described.
Four former Senate majority leaders — Democrats Daschle and George Mitchell, and Republicans Bob Dole and Howard Baker — founded the center in 2007, when extreme partisanship was having “a corrosive effect on our ability to govern,” Baker said at the time. In launching the organization, Mitchell added that “we need to use the best ideas from right and left to address key issues.”
Since, the American political landscape has become even more polarized. A National Journal study of congressional votes in 2010 found that every Republican senator was more conservative than every Democrat, and just five House Republicans voted more liberally than the most conservative House Democrat. In some of the most important votes of 2009 and 2010, no Republican supported health-care reform or the economic stimulus package.
Meanwhile, the Bipartisan Policy Center has attracted support from across the political spectrum. Lott is a senior fellow, as are three other GOP former members of Congress (Utah’s Robert Bennett, New Mexico’s Pete Domenici, and Tennessee’s Bill Frist), two Democrats (North Dakota’s Byron Dorgan and former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman), and retired Marine Corps general James L. Jones. Three Democrats and three Republicans sit on its advisory council of former governors. Its board of directors includes Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s energy program, and John Rowe, chairman and CEO of the Exelon Corp., one of the country’s largest power companies.
Financial support comes from 16 foundations, three dozen corporations, and a dozen individual philanthropists. Starting with a staff of six, it has grown to a staff of 60 with a $19 million annual budget.
Putting together panels of experts and former government officials, the organization churns out policy papers on issues ranging from housing to national security to climate change, and it promotes them on Capitol Hill. The organization grew out of the National Commission on Energy Policy, a bipartisan group of experts from government and the private sector.
Cavanagh said he originally joined the energy panel because he was attracted to the idea that “you could have a vividly diverse group and you could get at least a partial consensus that would help unstick a quagmire in Washington.”
He gets mixed reactions from other environmentalists because of the compromises needed to reach bipartisan agreements. “Sometimes, imperfect packages are assembled in efforts to find a common solution,” he explained. “This at times results in recommendations that important environmental constituencies do not agree with.”
Prominent panelists generate media interest in the reports. A debt-reduction study — led by former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, a Republican, and Democrat Alice Rivlin, who was the White House budget director in the first Clinton administration — drew attention for its bold and comprehensive nature. Their proposals included raising taxes and cutting popular spending programs and tax deductions.
The debt-reduction panel epitomized the center’s approach. A diverse group convenes, makes compromises, and produces proposals with something for everyone to like — and hate. “Not every member agrees with every element of this plan,” the panel warned at the front of its report. But they had proved that “at this time of political uncertainty, a bipartisan group can craft a comprehensive and viable blueprint to tackle the nation’s most serious economic challenges.”…