January 28, 2009
Why Bipartisanship is UnethicalBy Larrey Anderson
Depending on the circumstances, "bipartisanship" is almost always a sign of either (A) political weakness or (B) moral turpitude. In either case, bipartisanship is almost never ethical.[i] In this article I will demonstrate why.
To make this explanation as simple as possible, let's assume that we have a unicameral legislative body composed of 100 members. In this first example demonstrating that bipartisanship is an indication of (A) political weakness, let us further assume that the legislative body is composed of 45 conservatives, 10 moderates and 45 liberals. (This ratio is roughly similar to the conservative/liberal representation in the House and the Senate when Republicans controlled the legislative branch for just over ten years until 2006.)
First a lesson from Civics 101: It takes a majority, just 51 votes in our hypothetical legislature, to pass a bill.[ii] Let's say that the conservatives introduce a bill to improve education. The bill is simple. It requires that schools receiving aid must meet certain educational criteria. There are already 45 (conservative) votes for the bill.
The conservatives don't need another 20 or 30 votes. They only need 6. There are ten moderates in our make-believe legislative body. So the conservatives need to strike a "compromise" with one more than half of the moderates. They need nothing from the 45 liberals to pass the legislation.
Just as important, the conservatives, campaigning in their respective states, have promised their voters that they would pass legislation that requires local schools to meet certain criteria. These same legislators did not promise that the bill would, for example, contain a liberal proposal that prohibits teachers in the local schools from being fired for not meeting the legislation's criteria.[iii]
The rational basis of the initial promise is this: the local schools will improve if spending is tied to verifiable improvements in the standardized tests taken by the students. If the legislation works, the legislators who passed the bill will get the credit. If the legislation fails, they must face their constituents.
The citizens (the people to whom these legislators are directly responsible) voted for these legislators, at least in part, because these legislators had made this promise. The conservative legislators, if they are men and women of their word, owe it to their constituents to pass this legislation in the manner that it was presented to their constituents. The moral obligation of the legislator is to make the minimum compromise necessary to pass the promised legislation. (Say, for example, that six moderates will support the legislation if it contains language that also requires that the teacher/student ratio reach a certain number.)
But the conservative legislators have two problems: (1) they need six more votes. (2) They believe (or have come to believe after years of living in Washington DC) that the moderates and the liberals are "colleagues" whose wishes must be included in the legislation.
As we have seen, the moral obligation of the conservative legislator is to find the six votes needed for the passage of the bill using the least amount of bipartisanship. This takes political strength. It also takes personal conviction that the simple plan will actually bring about the intended result. This approach involves political risk (and possible reward) for the conservative legislator.
If the conservatives allow the moderates and the liberals to add their "compromises" to the bill (in our example class room size for the moderates and protection for tenured teachers for the liberals) there is no clear place to lay the blame if the legislation fails to fix the educational system; and there is no clear explanation for the legislation's effectiveness if it happens to be successful. In short, the fully compromised solution may or may not help the kids in the schools and the citizens have no way of determining which part of the legislation was helpful and which parts were harmful. Furthermore, the voters have no real information (other than the promise of the politicians) to help guide them in voting for or against the politicians who voted for the compromise bill.
Unfortunately, Republicans in political power seem oblivious to this simple political truth. For the sake of "camaraderie," and in the "spirit of bipartisanship" (an evil spirit if there ever were one) Republicans have historically invited the liberal Democrats to join together to "work out our differences."
The "No Child Left Behind" legislation is a perfect example. The Republicans had majorities in both Houses when this bill was passed. There was no need to allow Ted Kennedy to co-author the legislation. The record of Republican compromises on issues like educational reform is a time worn tale of one thing: cowardice.
Now let's look at our present day situation: (B) bipartisanship as a form of moral turpitude. We begin again with our hypothetical 100 member unicameral legislative body. But this time there are 55 liberals, 10 moderates, and only 35 conservatives. (This figure roughly approximates the current Democrat control of both Houses of our Congress.)
Let's use some real world examples this time: the federal bailouts. (We will stick to our hypothetical numbers and legislature to help keep the argument straightforward.) [iv]
The first bailout bill was sold as an "emergency" plan to save the mortgage industry. Remember that in our hypothetical legislature only 51 votes are necessary to pass any bill. Since the liberals clearly control the body, there was no need for any conservative votes. The liberals could have easily passed the legislation -- and then the liberals would have been clearly responsible for the success or failure of the bailout. Conservative legislators, in the "sprite of bipartisanship" (with minimal demands and almost no real input into the bill) voted for the legislation.
What did the conservatives get for their votes? Nothing. Their votes for the bill were unnecessary for its passage. Nothing in the real world changed because of their votes. (The bill would have passed with 51, 71, or 91 votes. Any vote over 51 was meaningless for passage.)
What did the liberals get from this "bipartisan effort?" Everything. They are the majority. They wrote the legislation. Any perks included in the bill were put there to enhance their own political clout.
More important, the failure of the legislation cannot be assigned to a specific political party or ideology because the leadership of both parties supported the bill. Conservative leaders may have tagged the bill a "crap sandwich" -- but like well behaved little girls and boys -- they ate it.
And in eating it the conservatives provided liberals political cover. When the first bailout failed (and it has failed) both parties could be rationally blamed for the failure. Republicans who now claim, "We didn't really want to vote for the bill," do not look like statesmen -- they look like gullible fools.
This is not only political weakness -- it is immoral. My guess would be that at least 75% of the Republicans who voted for the bailout bill campaigned as "conservatives." They publically expressed to their constituents on countless occasions their unyielding support for basic free market principles: businesses should be allowed to fail or succeed in a free market. In short, they lied.
Finally, and most important, now the same Republicans are faced with a second bailout bill of even greater proportions. Republicans have painted themselves into a corner. If a first trillion-dollar bailout was necessary for the economy surely a second trillion-dollar bailout is just as vital.
Once the Republicans deserted their free market principles for the first bailout bill, their "reasons" for opposing the second bailout bill ring hollow. If free market principles (tax cuts will stimulate the economy) were not good enough to use to reject the first bailout bill -- they are now not good enough stop the second.
This is where bipartisanship always takes Republicans: away from their conservative principles and trapped by the logic of their previous compromises.
Republican leaders in Washington, DC look and sound puny, pathetic, and hypocritical in their protestations of this second bill bailout bill for one, and only one, reason: they are.
Larrey Anderson is a writer, a philosopher, and submissions editor for American Thinker. His latest award-winning novel is The Order of the Beloved. His memoir, Underground: Life and Survival in the Russian Black Market, has just been released.
[i] The exception to this rule would be a declaration of war, a resolution expressing sympathy, gratitude, etc. In other words, bipartisanship only makes moral sense if there is no underlying disagreement between the legislators.
[ii] For simplicity's sake, and because this is a moral not a political argument, I will ignore certain legislative processes like the number of members who must be present to compose a quorum, seniority, cloture, the committee process, docking procedures, rules for procedural readings, etc.
[iii] In fact, the conservative legislator probably claimed just the opposite, promising constituents something like, "Teachers who are unable to meet these requirements will be replaced." We have all heard these kinds of speeches from our conservative politicians ... when they are back home and not in Washington.
[iv] For reasons of brevity, I will not go into the specific details of the first bailout legislation or Obama's second bailout proposal. I will also ignore the fact that a Republican president initiated the first bailout. This article is focused on the legislative process -- not on the decision procedures of the chief executive.