Can Partisanship Be Fixed?

Members of each party sit mixed during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress.
Scott J. Ferrell | Congressional Quarterly | Getty Images
Members of each party sit mixed during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress.

The partisanship that produces political gridlock in Washington has become so deeply embedded that politicians and voters alike take it for granted. It has become a major cause of public cynicism about chances for solving important national problems.

That in turn raises the question of how to overcome it. As dysfunctional as Washington so often appears, it clearly can be done from time to time even now.

At moments of national crisis, the urgency of acting can bring Democrats and Republicans together. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush assembled a bipartisan majority in Congress to authorize war. He did it again during the 2008 financial crisis near the end of his presidency, when Congress passed the TARP program.

Another opportunity comes when one party achieves sufficient control over the levers of power in Washington to overcome opposition resistance. President Clinton managed that when Democratic majorities passed his 1993 economic plan; President Obama did the same with his health care law in 2010.

A third opening comes when one party sees a vulnerability of its own so large that it can only be solved by cooperating with the opposition. After the Republican Revolution of 1994, Clinton bucked Democratic liberals and joined a GOP Congress in enacting welfare reform. Now Congressional Republicans – chastened by their dismal standing among the fast-growing ranks of Latino voters – are moving toward a similar accommodation with Obama and Democrats on comprehensive immigration reform.

But what about other times? For now, the picture is bleak.

Typically, says the veteran political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, Washington operates in a state of permanent "tribal warfare." Its rituals – and therefore potential solutions – extended from Election Day polling places to state legislatures to Congress and the White House.

One set of problems arises from the nature of the electorate. Only a small fraction of potential voters – dominated by the most ideologically zealous – turns out to vote in primary elections to select Republican and Democratic nominees. Roughly 4 in 10 potential voters stay away from presidential general elections.

By expanding voter participation, some reformers argue, politicians will hear from more voices demanding compromise solutions. Possibilities for doing that include easier registration and longer windows for voting.

An overlapping problem results from the way state legislatures, under the same partisan pressures as Congress, gerrymander House district boundaries to favor one party or the either. That results in "safe" blue or red districts for Democrats and Republicans alike – except in party primaries, where incumbents can be vulnerable to challenge by ideological extremists.

Fear of such challenges makes it difficult for House members to reach bipartisan compromise. A potential solution: state-level shifts to having district lines drawn by non-partisan commissions to reduce gerrymandering.

Another source of partisan dysfunction stems from the ways Congress operates. The Founding Fathers drafted a Constitution of checks and balances to constrain both Congressional and presidential power in hopes of preventing tyranny. Under the current party system, the tyranny of gridlock can be the largest threat.

(Read More: Gridlock, Then and Now)

Senate filibusterrules were designed to preserve the rights of embattled minorities. But in recent years the filibuster – requiring the party in power to muster 60 of 100 votes rather than a simple majority – has become routinely used to block any action at all.

The House and Senate committee systems once allowed lawmakers of both parties with expertise on specific issues to craft compromises. But in recent years the power of committees has waned, with chairs of both parties increasingly under the thumb of Republican and Democratic leaders whose top imperative is enforcing partisan unity.

Moreover, there once were social bonds that helped to overcome partisan differences. Lawmakers moved their families to Washington after winning election, turning daytime partisan foes into neighbors and friends at night and on weekends. Now lawmakers tend to leave their families in their home states to avoid excessive identification with Washington, and fly into the capital for just a few days each week when floor votes occur.

Potential solutions: constrain the use of filibusters for specific circumstances, strengthen the prerogatives of Congressional committees, and institute a five-day workweek for Congress.

Reformers venturing into more controversial territory point toward the campaign finance system. Lawmakers today spent vast amounts of time raising cash for their campaigns. Their reliance on stable financial allies – labor unions and environmentalists for Democrats, industries such as tobacco and oil and gas for Republicans – makes it difficult for Senate and House members to defy party orthodoxy.

A path resolving those pressures is difficult to identify. Liberals push for tax-payer funded public financing, conservatives for unlimited donations combined with rapid electronic disclosure of contributions. The last campaign finance law to be enacted – the so-called McCain-Feingold bill – was partly overturned by the Supreme Court.