Come together

Posted: Jul 25, 2003 12:00 AM

 This town has been a bitter battleground since, oh, early 1995. And it’s all Newt Gingrich’s fault.

 Why? Because he wrote the “Contract with America” and led Republicans to victory behind it. When Gingrich became speaker, it marked the first time the GOP had controlled the House of Representatives in more than 40 years.

That put an end to what some fondly remember as “bipartisanship”: Democrats would run the House and do pretty much whatever they wanted, while Republicans would meekly go along, or battle ineffectually.

Many political reporters pine for those days. “We’ve heard President Bush talk about bipartisanship, a sense of togetherness,” CNN anchor Judy Woodruff observed on July 9. “It frankly isn’t always evident on Capitol Hill. But it was today, at least during a ceremony honoring former House members. As our Bruce Morton explains, it was a flashback to the days when Republicans and Democrats seemed a lot friendlier.”

 Morton’s package focused on four retired congressmen, two Democrats and two Republicans. All served at least 30 years in the House, and none knew anything other than a Democratic majority. They were gathered that day to accept the first Congressional Distinguished Service Award.

“Today offered memories of a kinder time,” Morton said as he closed his story. “Of a House that many felt at home in.” “And maybe it will come back,” Woodruff concluded.

Washington Post columnist David Broder thinks he knows how to make that happen. “The implicit message of the ceremony,” he wrote on July 13, “is that Congress is at its best when its members focus on their shared responsibility to the nation, not their partisan power games.”

But single party dominance is not bipartisanship. To say that Democrats gladly worked with Republicans during their decades in power is naive. They ran the House the way they wanted, and passed only the legislation they agreed with. Broder admits as much when he tells the story of longtime House Minority Leader Bob Michel -- the man whose retirement opened the door for Newt Gingrich’s revolution in 1994.

“Michel,” Broder wrote, “recalled that he spent all ‘of my 38 years as a member of the minority party. Oh, those were frustrating years,’ he said to understanding laughter.”

Frustrating? Yes. Healthy for the country? No.

Ironically, even though what reporters call “bipartisanship” gets plenty of good press, many of the laws that get passed because of it are bad laws.

Consider the current debate over Medicare. Both houses have passed “reform” bills. President Bush is urging lawmakers to compromise and pass a unified bill. After meeting with the president, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., told The New York Times “there was one clear message, the importance of us working together, both parties, on a bipartisan basis.”

But if they do pass a “bipartisan” bill, it will probably resemble the current bills. Each would create a new entitlement, without actually reforming the broken Medicare system. Lawmakers estimate the cost of either bill at $400 billion, but past experience proves it would surely be much higher.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., has already said he supports this bill as a starting point toward ever more Medicare spending. He’s assured his colleagues that once it passes, they’ll come back “again and again and again.”

President Bush should have learned by now that he can’t win a spending battle with Kennedy. Last year, the liberal lion threw his support behind the “No Child Left Behind” act, an unprecedented $6.7 billion federal intrusion in the education system.

Bush seemed to think he’d reached a bipartisan compromise. But just a month later, Kennedy lashed out. “It is Democrats who must carry forward the fight for adequate education funding,” he announced. “[The president’s] education budget contains the lowest growth in education funding since Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America -- barely enough to keep pace with inflation.”

So much for bipartisanship.

It is important for lawmakers to get along, and for them to work together for the good of the country. They have done so as recently as last October, when both houses passed a measure giving President Bush the authority to attack Iraq. Many Democrats, including presidential candidates John Kerry, Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman and John Edwards voted for that resolution.

But when “bipartisanship” becomes journalistic code for one-party rule, or an excuse for endless spending increases, it’s time to oppose it. Even if that means Washington remains a battleground for years to come.