As a judge in Florida recently reminded us, George Washington warned the young nation about political parties growing too strong and fractious. Washington stated, “[parties] are likely to in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion….[T]he common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.”
Scroll through Twitter, and in no time at all you’ll find signs of toxic partisan battles bringing federal lawmaking to a halt. This seems to be hitting the boiling point in D.C. where the Speaker of the House John Boehner is about to sue the President for delaying a law that Boehner hates. Wait, what? This kind of tomfoolery has entered the cut-off-my-nose-to-spite-my-face territory. No one knows when the inside-the-beltway fever will break.
But there are a few signs that rumors of bipartisanship’s death are greatly exaggerated. Sanity is breaking out in multiple quarters. For example, two bipartisan commissions have been working on the issue of elections and they have come up with some encouraging levels of consensus.
The 2012 election was marred by ridiculously long waits at the polls in several states including my home state of Florida. If you were waiting in line in Miami-Dade, it didn’t matter if you were Republican or Democrat, the process was slow and tedious and led some voters of both camps to give up and go home. So fixing the basic mechanics of election administration is a prime candidate for some bipartisan solutions. And they have been rolled out this year.
First out the gate was The American Voting Experience: Report and Recommendations by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration which was released in January 2014. This nonpartisan commission was created by executive order after the President announced at the State of the Union in 2013, “When any American, no matter where they live or what their party, are denied that right because they can’t afford to wait for five or six or seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals.” The Commission was headed by President Obama’s election lawyer Bob Bauer and Gov. Mitt Romney’s election lawyer Ben Ginsberg with extra brain power provided by Prof. Nathaniel Persily.
Among its many policy improvements, this report suggested, “Election officials should take advantage of the ‘resource calculators’ available through the Commission web site at www.supportthevoter.gov and hosted by the Cal Tech-MIT Voting Technology Project to aid in making decisions on how to allocate limited voting resources.” That’s a fancy way of saying let’s get smarter about putting more voting machines where there are more voters. But fancy or not, it’s a common sense solution which could help voters from both parties.
Then, last month, there was the report from the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), a think tank founded in 2007 by former Senate Majority Leaders the late Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and George Mitchell. The BPC’s report, Governing in a Polarized America: A Bipartisan Blueprint to Strengthen our Democracy, had a broader mandate than the presidential commission and the star power of Yale Law School Prof. Heather Gerken working on election law matters. It covered (1) electoral system reform (2) congressional reform, and (3) public service.
Among the Bipartisan Policy Center suggestions were adopting a national primary day for congressional elections, redistricting by bipartisan commissions, regular work schedules for members of Congress, a more rational two year budgeting process, Senate rules reforms, and that “all Americans ages 18 to 28 should commit to one full year of service to their communities and the nation.”
Of particular interest were things that made the Bipartisan Policy Center list that have become fighting words among current elected officials including (1) expanding early voting and (2) that “[p]olitical contributions, including those made to outside and independent groups, should be disclosed so that citizens have full information about who is paying for the political messages they see.”
Getting from the good suggestions in these two blue ribbon reports to implementation will take some elbow grease and NGOs will have to step in to help translate the good words into good policy. That may have just gotten a shot in arm now that Hewlett Foundation is stepping in with some much needed funding to facilitate more bipartisan dialogue. They are putting $50 million into what they are calling the Madison Initiative named for James Madison, who like George Washington, also worried about factions tearing the nation apart as he addressed in Federalist No. 10.
Inertia in Washington isn’t costless. Political gridlock means we can’t solve thorny problems like adults, from climate change to education. But it’s good to see that the stalemate between Pennsylvania Avenue and the Capitol South Metro hasn’t stopped bright and patriotic Americans from thinking about how to improve our democratic experience across the party divide.
The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)