Land of No Bipartisanship

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, November 22, 2011


For anyone who has been watching American politics, the failure of the deficit reduction congressional committee to reach an agreement before the November 23 deadline should come as no surprise. The proximity of elections always puts additional hurdles on bipartisanship in Washington. However, the fact that bipartisanship seems to be permanently absent from Washington politics should be seen as a warning over the deteriorating health of American democracy. The absence of compromise sends the wrong signals about the willingness and disposition of the American political parties to lead the country out of its current economic crisis.


By definition, politics requires compromise. Different parties see the world differently. They are ideologically predisposed to certain solutions and policy prescriptions. In political systems designed on the basis of checks and balances, no party is powerful enough to always impose its views and implement all of its preferred policies. Traditionally, American democracy has been characterized by divided government and by the presence of veto powers that constrain the popular will. Often times, the popular will itself is somewhat contradictory, resulting in presidents who come from one party and a majority in Congress that represents another. Because politicians need to play with the card they are dealt with, a divided government normally leads to negotiations and compromise. When elections are near, short-term considerations make compromise more difficult. Just a few weeks before Republican primaries begin, it is expected that politicians will be looking at polls and at the reaction of likely voters and thus will take stances that are not conducive to compromise.


However, the failure to reach an agreement in the 12-member bipartisan congressional committee charged with finding sufficient spending cuts and tax increases to cut the fiscal deficit by 1.5 trillion dollars over 10 years does not correspond to normal politics. The committee itself was created as a result of a failed political bargaining. Back in August, President Obama and the Republican Congressional leadership were negotiating to increase the debt ceiling. Republicans wanted to force Obama and the democrats to agree to huge spending cuts in popular social programs. Democrats wanted to force Republicans to agree to a tax increase. Dogmatic positions on both sides derailed negotiations and pressed to find a last minute solution, Obama and the Republicans agreed to form a special committee comprised of 12 members, six democrats and six Republicans, appointed by the leadership of both parties in the Senate and House of Representatives, with each leader appointing three members. The committee has until November 23 to find ways to cut the deficit. Otherwise, automatic cuts in defense and social spending would be implemented starting in 2013.


The fact the committee was evenly divided was not itself a structural obstacle to compromise. However, the fact that Democratic and Republican leaders appointed hardliners more interested in defending their views than on finding common ground was an early warning of possible gridlock. All Republican members of the committee had previously signed pledges against tax increases. Democratic committee members had made equally strong statements against entitlement cuts. A committee comprised of more moderate voices with a more conciliatory approach would have moved away from dogmatism and accepted the rather sensible premise that nobody has the absolute truth and that there are merits on both sides of the aisle. After all, it is indeed reasonable to argue against some tax increases in times of economic distress. Similarly, cutting some types of spending will hinder the weak economic recovery and will foster higher short-term unemployment.


From the first few meetings, the committee seemed bound to gridlock. There were few hopes that an agreement would be reached. Soon after, many observers began to debate on what would come next in case of failure by the committee to agree on measures to cut the growing deficit. Although there is debate over what actual cuts will be automatically triggered starting in 2013, defense spending and many social programs will be inevitable victims. However, it is also possible that future negotiations over the budget for the next fiscal year will give Congress an opportunity to alter the amount of cuts and the areas that will be affected. If the lack of bipartisanship continues to dominate American politics, nasty feuds between Republicans and Democrats are to be expected.


All politicians know how to negotiate, how to compromise and how to play hardball. Only the good ones know when each of those strategies is the most appropriate. Responsible leaders will know when they should refrain from playing hardball. The special committee’s failure to reach an agreement reflects the excessive tendency by Washington politicians to always play hardball and their reluctance to negotiate and compromise. Failing to reach a compromise to cut down the deficit is itself a negative development, though not a surprising one. The growing resistance on the part of Republicans and Democrats—though not surprising either—constitutes much worse news. This most recent development in Washington politics heralds bad news for the future of American democracy.