Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Politicalization Of Bipartisanship -- Or, How I Snowed My Constitutents

Republicans have redefined bipartisanship. At least it is different from the definition I learned as a political science major in college.

As I recall it was politicians from opposing parties reaching a compromise to solve a hot issue. The classic example: Henry Clay. Agreeing with him or not on the slavery issue, historians once dubbed Clay "the great compromiser" and bestowed statesmanship honors on his shoulders. I was never comfortable with that label because as so often happens compromises turn stone to mush. Besides, it didn't prevent the Civil War.

Of more recent vintage is the compromise between House Speaker Tip O'Neill and President Ronald Reagan over Social Security reforms. They argued by day and drank whiskey at night. A good recipe and the compromise saved Social Security for a couple of generations.

In today's more hyper arena of partisan politics, the most powerful senators and wheeler dealers are not the party leaders. In Washington, they are a trio of milquetoast Republican moderates by the names of Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. In Sacramento, it is wealthy moderate Republican broccoli grower Abel Maldonado who early Friday morning cast the deciding vote on the state budget to fill its $42 billion deficit.

What the three U.S. senators extracted from President Obama's $787 billion stimulus bill could be described a variety of ways depending on one's confidence in the bill and political persuasion. I call it holding the bill hostage in order to get it passed.

Frankly, Specter and the bobbsie twins should be commended for cutting some of the non-stimulative measures Democrats packed in the bill. But they also cut billions for school construction which was far from prudent.

At least Specter, Collins and Snowe were not hypocrites.

That prize goes to all the Republicans who announced to their constituents the good work they did providing stimulus funds to their states through amendment procedures while at the same time voted against the bill.

That folks, is the new definition of Republican brand bipartisanship. The new game is cram as much of your stuff into the bill knowing full well in advance it will pass and then vote against it so you can tell your party leaders what a good trooper you were. Oh, what sinister fools they are. What chutzpah to expect their voters to believe such dribble.

What's scary is Obama pressing future legislation through Congress knowing in advance it will require one or two Republican senators on those hot-button issues. That's too much power sequestered on not the brightest light bulbs in the Senate chamber.

But Specter, Snowe and Collins have nothing on Abel Maldonado. He used blackmail to finally get the California budget passed after months of haggling that nearly forced the state into bankruptcy.

To curry his vote, Democrats and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger agreed to his demands to rewrite election rules that Maldonado said had allowed the Capitol to become paralyzed by partisanship. Here's an account filed by the Los Angeles Times:

Democrats initially said Maldonado's call for "open" primaries, in which voters could cross party lines and candidates of all parties would compete in the same primary, followed by a runoff of the top two vote-getters, was too substantial to be pushed through in a budget deal.

But Maldonado said the current budget stalemate proved that California could not return to fiscal sanity without fundamental changes in the way it elects its representatives."Without an open primary, we're going to be here again and again and again, voting on budgets," he told reporters. "This system is broken and we need to reform it."

Modeled on election rules in Washington state, the change -- if approved by California's voters next year -- would undermine the influence of political parties. It was unpopular with Democrats, but their leaders pressed them to accept it as the price of ending the political logjam.

Democrats agreed to another provision pushed by Maldonado that would keep legislators from getting pay raises in years when the state ran a budget deficit.

Maldonado was a good sport by dropping yet another demand that legislators' pay be docked whenever the state budget was not adopted on time.

What precipitates this hostage taking and political blackmail schemes is the rule in the U.S. Senate requiring a 60% majority to avoid filibusters and a two-thirds vote in California to approve the state budget. To overcome it, we need bipartisanship.

David Broder, the dean of political columnists, writes in the Washington Post about critics who say bipartisanship is a myth:

I hope Obama isn't listening. It's the worst advice he has received. It starts from a false premise: that the stimulus bill proves the failure of outreach to Republicans. In fact, had Obama not negotiated successfully with Republican Sens. Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter and met most of their terms, his bill would have died. This was a success for bipartisanship, not a failure.

I think my poli-sci professors would agree with Mr. Broder. I just don't like its side effects.

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