The Era of Partisanship Isn't Over

PHOTO: There are smiles all around as immigration reform legislation is outlined by the Senates bipartisan Gang of Eight, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 18, 2013.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

Drafters of the Senate's immigration bill say should it pass, it won't just fix the country's immigration system; it could spark a new era of bipartisanship that will allow lawmakers to address other divisive issues like a "grand bargain" on deficit reduction and future gun legislation.

"There is a different mood in the Senate," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) of the immigration "Gang of Eight" told reporters Thursday at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. "We hope that our immigration bill sets the model for coming to bipartisan agreements on other major issues."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), another "Gang of Eight" member, also sees the immigration bill as a potential turning point for Congress. "I do, for the first time in some time, harbor some optimism about a chance for a bipartisan approach toward some of the really compelling issues we're facing," he said.

It's easy to see why McCain and Schumer would think that bipartisanship could be making a comeback in Washington. The immigration debate has produced some unusual alliances. Last week, Mitt Romney's old running mate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) toured Chicago together to push for immigration reform. Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, typically enemies, shared the same stage at a press conference to roll out the Senate immigration bill.

Lawmakers are also hungry to get back into the good graces of the American public at a time when Congress' approval ratings are near their all-time lows. And what better way to do that than by showing cooperation across the aisle?

"We all seek approval; that's part of the reason why we do this, and to serve the people effectively," McCain said last week. "The majority of Americans think we're not doing that. Sooner or later, that does have an impact … If it continues along this path, you're going to see a third party in the United States."

But can an agreement on immigration reform really make increased bipartisanship in Congress a trend?

So far, there has been little real evidence to suggest that will happen. The bipartisan Manchin-Toomey amendment to expand background checks on gun sales failed to pass the Senate this month, an event that President Obama called a "shameful day for Washington."

Obama introduced his own budget proposal that would slow the rate of growth of Social Security benefits, language designed to attract Republican support. He's even dined with GOP senators. But so far, Republicans have dismissed his plan and a budget pact looks just as elusive as it has in the past.

Yes, the immigration debate has given us some stunning examples of bipartisan compromise and that may be enough to get a bill passed. But it's likely not enough to reverse the decades-long trend of increased partisanship and polarization, according to non-partisan political analysts like Rutgers political science professor Ross Baker.

A whole host of political science data shows that Congress has become more polarized along party lines, beginning in the middle of the 20th century and rapidly accelerating during the past 25 years.

That's due to factors outside of the policy debates in Congress. The parties themselves have become more ideologically rigid. Conservative lawmakers, especially from the south, began to disappear from the Democratic Party during the 1960s, when the party adopted a pro-civil rights stance. And the GOP lost many of its moderate northeastern and midwestern members soon afterward as southern Democrats migrated to the GOP.

Congressional districts have also become more homogenous along racial and ideological lines, in part because of gerrymandering but also because of natural population shifts. That encourages House members to vote on a more partisan basis in order to avoid constituent backlash or a primary challenge.

And interest groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) have increasingly "scored" key votes to hold members' feet to the fire, according to Baker.

"You combine all of that, and you've really got the makings of some pretty impressive polarization," he said.

Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution recently co-authored a book that argues Republicans in particular have taken a more radical approach that prioritizes blocking Obama's agenda rather than negotiating on major legislation. Complicating the problem, Obama has also not shown an adeptness for working the inside game of Congress.

Ornstein and Mann wrote this month in a Washington Post op-ed that despite progress on certain issues like immigration, those fundamentals remain unchanged.

"Yes, there are signs of progress in our political system," they wrote. "The universe of problem-solvers in the Senate has increased since the 2012 elections. But the broader pathologies in our politics remain. For all the problems that existed in previous decades, in a system designed not to act with dispatch, there was a strong political center, with responsible bipartisan leadership. The same cannot be said today."

Baker also said that the immigration debate itself could become a lot more partisan than it appears now.

"The opponents of a path to citizenship haven't given up," he said. "My feeling about comprehensive immigration reform is that it remains to be seen."

He has a point. Even when an issue has bipartisan support in opinion polls it doesn't mean that Congress will act to pass it. Take the failed Manchin-Toomey amendment. Nine in ten Americans support expanded background checks, like the legislation proposed. But Republicans senators and a handful of Democrats from rural states were discouraged to vote for it, particularly by the NRA and vocal constituents. As a result, supporters couldn't find 60 votes to break a GOP filibuster.

"[A bipartisan budget deal], along with an immigration overhaul and gun overhaul, should be in the no-brainer category," Ornstein wrote in Roll Call in March. "But the odds may still be with the no-brainers who want to thwart compromise and push confrontation."

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