Why don't the two parties work together?

Posted: Mar 21, 2007 12:01 AM
Why don't the two parties work together?

Every once in a while some hopeless idealist, sick unto death of the constant squabbling between the two major parties, demands to know "Why don't the Republicans and Democrats in Washington just get together and work for the good of the country?" This easily qualifies as the silliest suggestion regularly made in talks about politics.

Why don't boxers embrace in the center of the ring, agree not to fight, and split the prize money 50-50? The answer is, of course, that we are looking forward to the fight, and would rightly be outraged if it didn't occur. To be sure, politics is a far more serious matter, and it would presumably be nice, as a purely theoretical proposition, if those who participate in it would agree to work together to solve the nation's problems.

But the Founding Fathers weren't fools, and they knew that it was inevitable that serious men (and women) would disagree profoundly on the proper solutions to all sorts of problems. So they carefully designed a system in which such differences would be argued out among the various factions, and then a decision would be taken on each issue by the simple process of putting the various proposed solutions up to a vote.

To be sure, they craftily made the voting process a complicated one, in which all sides would be heard out, compromises could be reached and the right of a majority to have its way would be limited in various respects. The decision on any given question must be adopted by the House of Representatives, and separately (and often contradictorily) by the Senate, and then compromised (if possible) and readopted by both. And then the result must be signed by the president before it can actually become law. If, however, the president vetoes it, the result can still become law if both Houses of Congress readopt it by a two-thirds vote of each. Even then, however, it may fail to become law if the Supreme Court rules it unconstitutional.

Complicated as the process is, that's the way the nation's major decisions are made, and in general it has worked brilliantly well. True enough, the Fathers failed to foresee, or at any rate to provide officially for, the growth of political parties, which are essentially just durable factions whose members tend to have more in common with each other than they do with the members of the other factions. But the development of political parties didn't require any major changes in the decision process laid down in the Constitution.

A moment's thought makes it clear how wise that process is. Suppose the Founders had actually provided that all major decisions must be made by "consensus." Would the consensus have to be unanimous? Surely not -- there will always be some crackpot senator or congressman who would refuse to go along. So each party would have to arrive at its own position by whatever method it chose, then seek consensus with the other party (or parties). That is not far from what actually happens in many cases today, but it doesn't provide for situations in which the parties cannot or will not reach a consensus with each other. So a vote simply must be taken, and the will of the majority will prevail.

Actually, experience teaches that the nation is often most ill-served when the two parties do in fact "get together" and agree on something, rather than resolving their differences by a majority vote. There are many examples of this in every session of Congress. If the parties privately agree on (say) what officeholders' salaries ought to be, or what perks they ought to enjoy, you can bet the losers will be the taxpayers. Far better that such things should be slugged out between the parties, with the minority loudly accusing the majority of overreaching.

Yes, the brawls between the Republicans and the Democrats can get tiring, and both are routinely guilty of posturing just to look better than their rival. But that way we at least get to see what's going on. It's when harmony (and silence) reign on Capitol Hill that the voters have most cause to worry.