Bipartisanship Burning (Part 1)
Issue #41 of The Two But Rule
It’s safe to say that there’s not much safe to say about politics in the United States these days. But…
Few would deny that the forces of bipartisanship in the US House of Representatives experienced an object lesson last week in the precarious power of working across the aisle in a divided Congress.
McCarthy Gets His But Kicked
Last Sunday, the now-former Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, seemed to pull a rabbit out of his hat by delivering a continuing resolution to keep the US Government funded. Just 24 hours prior, most pundits were predicting a shutdown. The key to this magic trick, it turns out, was a group of Representatives called the Problem Solvers Caucus (more on them later). They pulled together enough votes from both Republicans and Democrats to overcome a small group of hold-out Republicans that seemed intent on causing a shutdown. It was touted as a triumph of bipartisanship.
Then, two days later, those same hold-out Republicans — eight of them — threw the trick into reverse, triggering a vote to remove the Speaker, which overcame opposition from 96% of House Republicans who supported McCarthy by joining with Democrats to oust him. This was also, technically, an act of bipartisanship — bizarro bipartisanship?
The week was like a political matter-antimatter collision, and just as explosive. Never before in US history has a Speaker been removed in this way.
Well…How Did We Get Here?
There are a lot of intentions, both overt and hidden, driving this rolling dumpster fire. There’s probably truth to be found in understanding the many motivations behind each stakeholder’s positions, if only there were a way to weed out the weaponized red herrings, self-delusions, and bounded rationality that make the difficult three-dimensional chess game of human governance even more difficult.
Here are a few of the issues you probably heard from the combatants last week:
Regular order: The hold-out Republicans spent much of their airtime last week talking about something that seems both commonsensical and weirdly parliamentarian. For reasons that deserve a 2Buts article of their own, the United States has managed to pass a budget before the deadline only four times in nearly fifty years. An unhealthy pattern has set in where, instead of an orderly appropriations process that considers about a dozen spending categories separately, everything is smashed together in the 11th hour. This results too often in either a beast called an Omnibus Appropriations Bill, a government shutdown, or what happened last week: a continuing resolution aimed at short term spending to keep the lights burning and buy time. Hold-outs say they would rather see a shutdown than “kick the can” of fiscal “belt tightening” down the road. Sounds heroic, especially since it’s only been done four times in a half-century. Is there some other motive hiding behind this seemingly sensible argument? I’ll let you know after I see Matt Gaetz and use my Vulcan mindmeld on him. ;)
Ukraine: The vast majority of both parties are committed to continued funding for Ukraine’s war effort against Russia. But recently, voices in Congress have been rising with challenges. Some ask how long should the US fund what they call “another forever war.” Others suggest that the US shouldn’t be involved in any more foreign conflicts — an oldie but a goodie for US politics. And others shift the conversation to the next issue.
Border Security: There is a growing consensus that reducing the number of people trying to cross the US-Mexico border illegally is now a top priority. Several solutions have been presented on both sides of the aisle, with some arguing for finishing the previous administration’s border wall, others proposing high-tech sentry towers, and even the current administration doubling down on measures to keep asylum seekers in their country of origin rather than heading to the border. Will any of it work? That’s beyond the scope of this article, but it’s interesting that the many, many disagreements on how to spend US tax dollars are being boiled down to a false tradeoff between two spending items that together constitute a tiny fraction of the US budget.
If the conflict over the budget really is about Ukraine military funding versus funding for border security, one would think that the obvious compromise is to fund them both. Win-Win, plus it allows Congress members on both sides to send more money to their constituents while continuing to complain about too much government spending (always a good line during a campaign fundraiser).
Regardless, at this point the question about regular order and normal appropriations is moot until the next round of budget sausage making. We are already past the 11th hour. An Omnibus mess, a government shutdown, or more continuing resolutions seems guaranteed.
There’s so much more to unpack in this story. It’s still unfolding faster than anyone can track, and the prospect of getting the unvarnished truth from politicians about what their real intentions and motives are seems remote (and that’s everyone’s fault).
But here’s the part of the story that interests me right now: What does the shifting role of the Problem Solvers Caucus tell us about the prospects for bipartisanship, compromise and common sense in US politics?
The Compromise Trap
It seems to me that they’re a group that could really put Momentum Thinking to good use. Few have greater need for ways to handle gnarly problems involving lots of competing stakeholders.
The Problem Solvers were formed in 2017 and consist of 64 members. One can only join if someone from another party joins with them. There are always two. #2Buts. They are committed to action-oriented projects, like getting sensible drug pricing reforms implemented, and they are obviously big on bipartisanship.
People love the idea of bipartisanship. Most people say it’s a good thing when asked, but it gets strange when you ask people about bipartisanship and the notion of compromise.
In a 2019 Pew Research Center study, both Democrats and Republicans strongly agreed that politicians should compromise. It’s just that they overwhelmingly thought that the opposition should do most of the compromising.
How often have you heard that the art of politics is all about compromise? How about the line, “We know this bill is good, because nobody’s happy with it.” Of course, compromise is essential, but maybe the art of governing is about more than that particular one-trick pony. Supporters of groups like the Problem Solvers better hope so, because if bipartisanship is their thing, and the primary tool of bipartisan politics is compromise, we are in trouble.
To make the compromise game work, you need to have players who are committed to making the current institution of government work. You need people who believe that it’s better to give something up to reach a plan on which both sides will agree. Does that sound like the US Congress right now? Not so much, right? One might even say:
Bipartisanship as an exercise in compromise is doomed…for now, at least.
There are times in society when folks start thinking that the game is rigged, tired, or so fundamentally broken that it’s better to upend the game table, send the pieces flying across the floor, and start over. It’s the classic “break things to fix them” mentality. (I talk a lot about the willful ignorance of this mentality in the book.
When you find yourself in a room of people who want the current game to end rather than finding a way to improve it, you need a better game plan than calling for compromise.
Under these conditions, moderates get squeezed between factions either playing “winner take all” or just playing games in order to bring it all crashing down.
Result: Axios reported that some members of the Problem Solvers are considering quitting, incensed that their Democrat colleagues voted to oust McCarthy, something they likely had to do once their party decided not to support the Speaker.
In a draft statement Axios obtained, Republican Problem Solvers apparently wrote, "To continue to participate in the Caucus would be to allow it to have the bipartisan credibility it lacks.”
Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion.
In the meantime, subscribers will see below a link to the fascinating conversation I’ve been having with ChatGPT on the subject of the Problem Solvers Caucus, bipartisanship and the Two But Rule.
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