Trump's olive branch differs from the golden eras of bipartisanship

Much of Washington - most notably the Republican congressional leadership - was left stunned this week when President Trump opted for the three-month debt ceiling and Hurricane Harvey relief offered by the Democrats. This action has prompted many comparisons to the efforts of bipartisanship and "triangulation" by past presidents. At the same time, there are questions about whether this initial action might break the logjam on Capitol Hill. For a president who entered office without much attachment to political orthodoxy, this week's deal may serve as a useful exercise towards establishing a minimal working relationship between the White House and Democratic leaders.

That said, a 90-day deal to fulfill the basic operations of government and badly needed disaster aid will hardly enter the pantheon of great historical bipartisan efforts such as the 1986 tax reform, the 1986 immigration reform, and the 1996 welfare reform. Some of the best minds in political science and political history tackled those very issues in "Triumphs and Tragedies of the Modern Congress," a book by the Center for the Study of the Presidency and CongressWhat is clear in those case studies is not only the importance of the individual leaders at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, but also the broader political environment in which problem solving and compromise are seen as moments of triumph, rather than spinelessness and capitulation to the other party.

It is easy to look back on the era of President Ronald Reagan and Speaker Tip O'Neill and imagine them as Washington's halcyon days. Perhaps they were, but not because of the evening whiskeys and Irish wit shared by the two leaders. Disagreements over domestic policy, economic inequality, Cold War foreign policy and the balance of power between the executive branch and Congress were intensely argued at the time. The difference was these disagreements were overcome for the sake of making needed reforms.


Nor did bipartisan cooperation result from last-minute negotiations or political brinksmanship. Tax reform proposals had come out of year of analysis by the Treasury Department and depended on the willingness of Dan Rostenkowski, the powerful Democratic Ways and Means chairman, to leverage political capital from action on Social Security reform and deficit reduction. Similarly, immigration reform proposals emerged from a bipartisan commission led by Reverend Theodore Hesburgh, the legendary president of Notre Dame, and were then shepherded by Republican Alan Simpson in the Senate and Democrat Romano Mazzoli in the House.

The 1996 welfare reform effort came at a time when both President Bill Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich were realizing that their partisan back-and-forth was rapidly eroding their approval ratings. Nor was it a "quick fix" measure. Welfare reform had been part of Gingrich's "Contract with America," and President Clinton had also made it part of his platform, reflecting a more centrist approach to Democratic politics. Learning the lessons from two previous pieces of legislation that Clinton had vetoed, he and Gingrich began negotiations on a bill. At the same time, Florida Republican Clay Shaw handled discussions with state governors about the increased state role in welfare programs proposed by the bill. John Kasich, at the time the House Budget Committee chairman, then brought together these proposals into legislation that would later be signed into law by Clinton.

Since then, the environment for bipartisanship has changed greatly. Few of the internal or external political incentives exist for such cooperation. First, the partisan media echo chamber reinforces partisan orthodoxy. If we consider 1996 welfare reform the high-water mark of bipartisanship, we cannot ignore that Fox News went live 46 days later. With the proliferation of outlets across talk radio, the blogosphere and social media, the way the electorate gets its information far different from the 1980s and 1990s. In the 1980s, leaders could begin the process of negotiations based on a bipartisan commission's work.

Today, the relatively recent example of the Simpson-Bowles commission shows how special interests on both sides will trip over themselves to get before a partisan microphone. The example of Eric Cantor similarly shows how the most embryonic discussions of bipartisan cooperation will mobilize partisan media and invite a primary challenge, often in scientifically gerrymandered districts where the primary can be the only competitive election.

Inside the Beltway, these historical achievements were often the result of consensus reached after past attempts either died in Congress or were vetoed by the president. The artful give-and-take between the leaders sought to build wide consensus, rather than shoehorning legislation into the limited scope and time-frame for the 51 votes needed for reconciliation. Party leaders and committee chairmen wielded tools such as earmarks, campaign funds and leadership posts to whip votes. Few, if any, of those tools remain as powerful today, and outside groups can marshal far more resources than the party.

Finally, at no point was funding of essential missions, the functioning of the government, nor the full faith and credit of the United States put at risk during the negotiations. There were disagreements on the ultimate policy objective throughout these great compromises, but never the hostage taking (or congressional willingness to shoot the hostage) that we too often see today. Many lessons can be learned from past compromises, but as we ask ourselves why our political system seems to be failing, we need to better understand how the political environment has been weighted against cooperation and consensus building.

Dan Mahaffee is senior vice president and director of policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.

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