What causes the lack of bipartisanship that has brought gridlock to government? The Bipartisan Policy Center explored a number of possibilities as it kicked off a countrywide tour of “National Conversations on American Unity” at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley last week.
- Former Congressman Dan Glickman placed the blame on an education system that lacks civics teaching and does not encourage serious study of government. He also said voters watch too many news shows that enforce their own beliefs.
- Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, a recent host on Current TV, said media should share the blame admitting that for television ratings, “compromise is boring.” She said the media likes conflict because it produces more viewers for their shows.
- The media is not the problem, said Reihan Salam from National Review Online. Rather he argued the pressure comes from a relatively wealthy nation that has to deal with cutbacks. Each interest wants to protect what they have. He said the tensions are created by “loss aversion.”
- Dirk Kempthorne, former Idaho Governor, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of the Interior argued that Washington changed from an NFL atmosphere to the Hunger Games. While NFL teams do all they can to win a game, at the end they give a player on the other side a hand up off the turf, he said. In the Hunger Games, the object is to put the opponent under the turf.
- Former Congressman Henry Bonilla of Texas said that Americans know more about the Kardashians than they know or care about their local elected officials. (L.A.’s 16% voter turnout the day before the commission meeting seems to support his contention.)
The Bipartisan Policy Center was founded in 2007 by four former Senate Majority Leaders, two from each major political party: Democrats Tom Daschle and George Mitchell; Republicans Howard Baker and Bob Dole. The goal of the Center is to come up with solutions to problems in a number of subject areas through “reasoned negotiation and respectful dialogue.”
The problem said a number of commissioners is that modern technology leads people to stay with their “tribe” and fear venturing out to find compromise. The tribe attitudes can affect reasoned debate it was suggested by the Policy Center’s unique experiment with polling.
As explained by panel moderator Susan Page of USA Today, a poll was conducted asking respondents about their support or opposition for agendas clearly identified with the Republican and Democratic parties.
Then a second group was polled, however, in this case the agendas were flipped. So the Republican agenda was identified as a Democratic agenda and vice versa. In both cases the respondents “strongly” supported the agenda they believed was put forth by the party they supported. In other words, Group A supported the Democratic agenda labeled Democratic and Group B supported the Republican agenda that also had been labeled Democratic. The same situation applied to the Republican groups.
One measure the commission is considering is the top two primary similar to the one adopted by California voters.
Former Senator Tom Daschle, one of the co-chairmen of the Center, said that a downside to the transparency movement in politics is that lawmakers are afraid to say anything publicly that can get them in trouble. He said the legislators couldn’t be honest with cameras rolling and social media everywhere.
Daschle related the story of the debate over the impeachment of President Clinton. He said when the cameras were on during the day lawmakers sitting in judgment of the president would say something quite different than what was offered up when the cameras were off at night.
Despite all the modern technology and reasons put forward for political warfare, the Commission hopes to come up with solutions to help get past the gridlock.
However, one reason for gridlock may be impossible to overcome—it is built into our system of government.
As Dan Glickman reminded the audience, the Founding Fathers created a system to slow the political process for they had a fundamental distrust of political power. The system they created encourages gridlock with power diffused between the executive and the legislature, where power is shared between two distinct houses.
One thing to note about the Commission is that all the elected officials on the panel were all “former” this or that. You see this many times. Once out of office many officials take a statesman or stateswoman stance. Perhaps part of the problem is that the ways to overcome gridlock are not suggested by those in the heat of the political kitchen.