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 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

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.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

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.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


Follow us


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.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

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.