Bipartisanship By Alternation

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One odd fixture of an awful lot of the policy debate is that the way you get a policy framework that incorporates ideas from both the right and the left of the political spectrum exclusively through “bipartisan compromise.” Realistically, in both the United States and in other countries, the policy status quo tends to reflect input from both parties because the parties alternate in power. The welfare reform initiative signed by Bill Clinton in 1996, for example, largely reflected the conservative vision. But the Democratic Party performed better in elections in subsequent elections and got a larger share of political power. Consequently, the policy status quo started to evolve in a more left-wing direction. They didn’t undue the core changes made in the original welfare reform, but they did make TANF more generous to legal immigrants and over time have enacted some substantial increases in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

In perhaps a similar way, the conservative idea of replacing Medicare with a voucher program would be a lot easier to do if liberals first succeeded in creating a workable, well-regulated and subsidized individual insurance market that covers everyone. Conversely, the progressive idea of universal health insurance coverage would be easier to achieve if conservatives first succeeded in their idea of redefining “health insurance” to mean something much less generous.

And if you look at countries with fewer legislative veto points—Canada, Sweden, the UK, whatever—this is what you see. It’s not that one party wins in a götterdamerung-esque showdown and rules the roost forever. Nor is it that programs are created, then repealed, then re-created, then re-repealed over and over again. Instead, the see-saw of political power creates an evolving status quo that incorporates ideas from both the left and right perspectives.

The United States has traditionally had both many veto points and also incredibly lax party discipline. During the historically unusual mid-20th century decline in congressional polarization this created a situation in which we were used to legislation-by-compromise, and control of the congress rarely flipped. Today, thanks to the end of the Solid South, parties are much more polarized and party control of congress is much more competitive. Under the circumstances, it would make much more sense to reduce veto points and pursue a policy dialogue based on alternation of governing agendas rather than the mirage of bipartisanship. After all, why shouldn’t the parties organize themselves into relatively uncompromising vehicles of ideological visions?