The tale of the last bipartisan unicorns
Nearly everyone contends that bipartisanship is dead or dying in Congress. What if everyone is wrong?
With gridlock the seeming order of the day in Washington, it’s easy to get caught up in the narrative that Congress is broken. Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, mentioned that he is considering bringing in a marriage counselor to help ease the divide on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, a viral video of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) telling Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) that he needed to “shut his mouth,” when Jordan continued to question Center for Disease Control (CDC) expert Dr. Anthony Fauci after his time had expired is just the latest example of fuel being added to the partisan fire. It seems that every day there is a new tweet storm or kerfuffle that “proves” our poison politics. As daily bipartisan work goes unnoticed and underreported, the bloodsport of political disagreement steals the headlines. This leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy: it is said that our politics is broken, therefore we must make it so.
But recently, former Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.) wrote in Vanity Fair of her time serving on the Armed Services Committee in House of Representatives. She described it as “one of the last bipartisan committees” in Congress. This phrase seemed awfully familiar. That’s because several members of Congress have publicly expressed that whatever work they’re doing with the other side is the last vestige of bipartisanship.
We know from our own work in and with Congress, this is often said of the Appropriations Committee. In fact, an old saying in Congress is that there are Democrats, there are Republicans and there are appropriators. While shutdowns, continuing resolutions and fights over border walls and abortion grab the headlines, this is a committee where members and staff routinely work together to craft yearly spending bills containing literally thousands of accounts on which there is unheralded bipartisan workmanship and agreement.
One of our favorite examples of this is an incident after a 2019 Appropriations subcommittee meeting where Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) were caught on a “hot mic” talking about how they needed to win over their respective party leaderships and get something done. With Sen. Durbin pleading “You and I really do work well together…I don’t want to jeopardize this.” Sen. Shelby commiserates, “I want to do it, I want to do it. You know it ain’t me… I’m going to talk to [Senate Republican Leader Mitch] McConnell and you talk to [Senate Democratic Leader Chuck] Schumer and let’s see if we can get together.” Followed by Durbin’s warning — “Your mic’s on.”
So despite the bipartisanship-is-dead media mirage, we decided to follow our unconventional hunch. If we’ve heard more than one example of the “last bipartisan” groups in Congress, how many of these Last Bipartisan Unicorns really exist?
Turns out, members of Congress from both parties are always extolling the bipartisan nature of their particular congressional committees but with little media fanfare. In 2019, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) suggested that Senate Select Committee on Intelligence “may be the last bipartisan committee standing in Congress” at the time. During the same year, Rep. Mark Saulnier (D-Calif.) claimed the House Select Committee on Modernization to be the “only bipartisan committee.” Meanwhile, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) suggested the House Small Business Committee held the same title.
During Rep. Elliot Engel’s (D-N.Y.) chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he and Ranking Member Mike McCaul (R-Texas) commended one another’s leadership of the “most bipartisan committee in Congress.” Like former Rep. Hill, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) claimed the Armed Services Committee to be the most bipartisan last year. Additionally, Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) and former Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) said the record of the House Energy and Commerce Committee “proves” it is “historically the most bipartisan committee in Congress.”
By our count (so far) there are at least eight of these committees with claims of being the last such bipartisan animal spanning both chambers. These committees employ the work of nearly 300 members of Congress.
The truth is, partisanship has always been a fixture of American politics since the debate to ratify the Constitution. Disagreement and debate should be encouraged in a democratic republic. So should compromise. The word “Congress,” after all, literally means “coming together.”
Additionally, let’s not forget that America has been through hyper-partisan times before, not to mention a Civil War. In 1803, then-Sen. John Quincy Adams complained “The country is so totally given up to the spirit of party that not to follow blindfold one or the other is an inexpiable offense.” In 1879, an editorial in the New York Tribune fumed “The worst Congress this country has ever seen adjourned yesterday, leaving its work unfinished.” Different time, familiar words.
How do we keep these Last Bipartisan Unicorns from going extinct? First of all, there must be a healthy recognition that we live in a complex society with a diversity of viewpoints. Second, the voting public cannot think of compromise as a four letter word. When each side stays in its corner expecting “compromise” to be when the other side completely comes over to theirs, we see the death of bipartisanship. Third, the media should note numerous examples of the existence of bipartisanship so constituents recognize and understand that their members of Congress must work together.
We have seen disagreements and gridlock before. In the midst of these times, we shouldn’t fail to recognize the Last Bipartisan Unicorns that are still doing their best to make things work. Voters should require more reporting of such cooperation among our elected representatives, seek out and support examples where it is occurring, and keep the conventional wisdom of division and tribalism from metastasizing into reality.
Aaron Jones is director of congressional relations at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He previously worked for House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers for eight years. Jorden Jones is the congressional program assistant to the Office of Congressional Relations.
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