It has been years since Congress forcefully and consistently flexed its bipartisan muscle. And without consistent use, this muscle has atrophied. But over the last month there have been encouraging signs from Congress that its bipartisanship muscle is ready to work and, with continued exercise, will grow in strength with an increased ability to find common ground on more substantial matters. And just in time for swimsuit season.
In the last few weeks, several small steps have been taken in Congress to further bipartisanship and promote collaboration:
– A sizable number of House members actively sought a solution by presenting a bipartisan-supported letter to Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to fix the Medicare Sustainable Growth Rate. This measure was debated and passed by Congress where, in the past, it had been “resolved” only by temporary, stop-gap measures.
– The Iran agreement, another bipartisan effort on behalf of Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and co-sponsor Ben Cardin (D-Md.), also made strides in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, hopefully moving both chambers closer to a “teamwork” approach than we haven’t seen in years.
– On Thursday, President Obama signed into law a bipartisan energy-efficiency bill sponsored by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), as well as No Labels Problem Solver Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.). There also has been bipartisan movement on a revision of the No Child Left Behind law led by Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).
After years of partisan politics at the expense of real progress for the American people, Congress is beginning to take steps — together — toward real change.
While the last few weeks of legislative accomplishments on the Hill may prove to be strong initial building blocks, perhaps the more important message is that positive results can create the momentum for larger bipartisan agreements in the weeks ahead. This week, Congress is on track to pass a budget resolution that, although it should be expected annually, has become an uncommon event on the Hill in the last five years. Other opportunities include the Highway Trust Fund, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and cybersecurity bills — all of which will require solid bipartisan muscle from both the House and the Senate, adding to the strength and potential of that underworked but ready-for-a-comeback bipartisan brawn.
We must encourage these small steps toward positive change in the way Congress works. Over the last decade, the inability of Congress to work together has led formerly routine operations to become all-out partisan standoffs, using up precious bandwidth and preventing Congress from even considering long-term problems. So while recent victories may appear minor to some, they are major in that they create space for Congress to move forward.
Along with freeing up legislative space, these small victories are powerful in their ability to build partnerships. Brokering political deals requires a certain level of trust between stakeholders, especially in this hyper-partisan climate, where any misstep is used as campaign ammunition. If leaders don’t expect the opposition party to make good on promises, negotiations fall through. The culture of mistrust is so strong in Washington that working across the aisle is considered risky, but these primary, small agreements can begin healing old wounds.
These initial steps pave the way toward greater problem solving and across-the-aisle support, so that more challenging issues can be dealt with in the future; challenges like creating 25 million new jobs over the next 10 years, securing Social Security and Medicare for another 75 years, balancing the federal budget by 2030 and making America energy secure by 2024. These challenges require a great deal of strength and a great deal of congressional might. But, like anyone who has lost muscle strength knows, it is low weight and low repetitions that rebuild strength in the beginning. These initial steps will build the stamina of congressional bipartisan muscle, and these small agreements, these seemingly tiny concessions, are small victories. Each small victory compounds, and each bipartisan agreement adds weight so that, eventually, Congress can tackle the larger problems without so much struggle, and make bipartisanship look easy.