Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Crafting Policy to Bridge the Red-Blue Divide

• December 12, 2011 • 4:00 AM

The Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank founded four years ago by four former U.S Senate majority leaders, works to overcome political polarization.

Mississippi Republican Trent Lott recently recalled the Washington he moved to as a House aide in 1968: members of both parties would gather on Thursday evenings to play gin rummy, sip bourbon, and smoke cigars.

“They knew each other,” he said. “They respected each other.”

Three decades later — when he and South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle traded Senate leadership as their parties traded majorities — each repeatedly would ask the other: “Is there a way we can get this done together?”

Senators were highly partisan and had deep philosophical disagreements, he said. “It was pretty tough, and it got ugly sometimes.” But enough senators were willing to compromise that it was possible to find common ground and legislate.

Now, he said, relations between Democrats and Republicans in Washington are “as bad as I’ve ever seen.”

Lott made the comments at a recent conference on “Taking the Poison out of Partisanship” sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank that tries to bridge the gap that Lott described.

Four former Senate majority leaders — Democrats Daschle and George Mitchell, and Republicans Bob Dole and Howard Baker — founded the center in 2007, when extreme partisanship was having “a corrosive effect on our ability to govern,” Baker said at the time. In launching the organization, Mitchell added that “we need to use the best ideas from right and left to address key issues.”

Since, the American political landscape has become even more polarized. A National Journal study of congressional votes in 2010 found that every Republican senator was more conservative than every Democrat, and just five House Republicans voted more liberally than the most conservative House Democrat. In some of the most important votes of 2009 and 2010, no Republican supported health-care reform or the economic stimulus package.

Meanwhile, the Bipartisan Policy Center has attracted support from across the political spectrum. Lott is a senior fellow, as are three other GOP former members of Congress (Utah’s Robert Bennett, New Mexico’s Pete Domenici, and Tennessee’s Bill Frist), two Democrats (North Dakota’s Byron Dorgan and former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman), and retired Marine Corps general James L. Jones. Three Democrats and three Republicans sit on its advisory council of former governors. Its board of directors includes Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s energy program, and John Rowe, chairman and CEO of the Exelon Corp., one of the country’s largest power companies.

Financial support comes from 16 foundations, three dozen corporations, and a dozen individual philanthropists. Starting with a staff of six, it has grown to a staff of 60 with a $19 million annual budget.

Putting together panels of experts and former government officials, the organization churns out policy papers on issues ranging from housing to national security to climate change, and it promotes them on Capitol Hill. The organization grew out of the National Commission on Energy Policy, a bipartisan group of experts from government and the private sector.

Cavanagh said he originally joined the energy panel because he was attracted to the idea that “you could have a vividly diverse group and you could get at least a partial consensus that would help unstick a quagmire in Washington.”

He gets mixed reactions from other environmentalists because of the compromises needed to reach bipartisan agreements. “Sometimes, imperfect packages are assembled in efforts to find a common solution,” he explained. “This at times results in recommendations that important environmental constituencies do not agree with.”

Prominent panelists generate media interest in the reports. A debt-reduction study — led by former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, a Republican, and Democrat Alice Rivlin, who was the White House budget director in the first Clinton administration — drew attention for its bold and comprehensive nature. Their proposals included raising taxes and cutting popular spending programs and tax deductions.

The debt-reduction panel epitomized the center’s approach. A diverse group convenes, makes compromises, and produces proposals with something for everyone to like — and hate. “Not every member agrees with every element of this plan,” the panel warned at the front of its report. But they had proved that “at this time of political uncertainty, a bipartisan group can craft a comprehensive and viable blueprint to tackle the nation’s most serious economic challenges.”

Turning the plan into law was another matter. As USA Today reported about the report’s release in November 2010: “Liberals and conservatives agreed on something Wednesday: a new, far-reaching, bipartisan plan to balance the budget and stabilize the national debt goes too far.” Liberals attacked cuts to Social Security, for instance. Conservatives criticized the higher taxes.

There was “no expectation” that Congress would embrace the plan wholesale, said Bipartisan Policy Center President Jason Grumet. But “when there is a solution, it will look very much like what we proposed.”

It’s not surprising that bipartisan ideas are hard to sell in such a starkly divided government, said Gary Jacobson, who studies polarization in Congress as a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego.

The U.S. form of government requires bipartisanship because it seldom experiences the one-party control that’s found in parliamentary systems, he said. Yet “partisans on both sides have pretty much dug in their heels — particularly on the right.”

Partly as a result, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s successes are found in parts of legislation and in how some issues are discussed, Grumet explained. Even though their proposals don’t become law in their entirety, he said, the former government officials who participate on the panels exert influence on Capitol Hill.

He offered two high-profile examples:

The energy commission, which became part of the center, contributed to Congress raising motor vehicle mileage standards and creating the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy. And Congress approved a reduction in the 2011 Social Security tax — which the center’s debt-reduction report proposed to provide a short-term boost to the economy.

Center recommendations also have improved the way some members of Congress are approaching transportation issues, Grumet said.

“I think we can say with confidence that we are shaping the conversation,” he said.

“Gridlock is in no one’s interest,” said Smith College government professor Howard Gold, who recently co-authored a book that argues polarized parties can be healthy for democracy because they give voters choices. Speaking of the bipartisan center, he added, “I think it’s a terrific idea to encourage healthy discourse.”

Grumet is optimistic that polarization eventually will provide its own demise.

“The combination of being frustrated about the inability to craft public policy — and the sense of peril that all incumbents will feel based upon the profound frustration the general population is expressing — will create some incentives for them to be working together,” he said. “If people start voting as they poll — which is they want Congress to get stuff done — that will be the most powerful incentive.

“You can’t have a 9 percent approval rating for much longer and not start to see some people lose their seats.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Price
Tom Price is a Washington-based freelance writer who focuses on public affairs, business, technology and education. Previously he was a correspondent in the Cox Newspapers Washington bureau and chief politics writer for the Cox papers in Dayton. He is author or co-author of five books, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, Rolling Stone, CQ Researcher and other publications.

More From Tom Price

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.