It shouldn’t take a crisis to get Washington to work


For the last several years, people who watch Washington closely started to think the unthinkable. Is American democracy fundamentally broken? Those with decades of experience in national politics know shepherding a good idea into law was never easy. But the sniping and politicking has become so rife—the fractious nature of congressional policymaking so combative—many wondered whether our constitutional system could survive. Democracy, after all, is more than people voting. It requires people with different points of view learning to govern one another in harmony. Is that still possible?

We now have an answer. The deal Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) agreed to over the weekend to address the Coronavirus—the grand compromise that President Trump endorsed and that congressional Democrats supported unanimously—proves that American democracy still can work. In a real crisis, Republicans and Democrats can work together to come to a bipartisan agreement. When push comes to shove, the fear of primaries, the allure of cable news requests, the hope that political intransigence will spark online fundraising, that all abates. When failure to reach across the aisle is sure to lead to catastrophe, our leaders are still capable of doing the right thing.

But bipartisanship shouldn’t be predicated on catastrophe. It shouldn’t take a crisis for our nation’s leaders to put country above party. Not too long ago, Republicans and Democrats worked productively together as a rule, rather than as a rare exception. Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill. Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. If American democracy can still work, we need to make sure it still does work, even when the nation isn’t facing a disaster.

Although nothing in recent history compares to the threat of this virus, America faces plenty of pressing challenges that, left unaddressed, will have massive and frightening effects. Our infrastructure is deteriorating. Schools across the country are failing. The federal deficit is out of control. Workers stand at risk of being displaced by technology even as American businesses can’t find people to hire. Are any of these challenges as dire as a novel virus threatening to overwhelm the nation’s health system? Absolutely not. But if Washington fails to develop solutions, the American Dream is sure to wither on the vine. Over the long-term, that’s a crisis too.

Country before party. For a decade now, No Labels has been beating the drum for our leaders to embrace this approach, even as Washington insiders often view it as naïve. They claim that our high-minded ideals don’t comport with the realities of politics on the ground. That any politician who wants to be reelected needs to be able to survive a primary from the far left (for Democrats) or far right (for Republicans). They say you can’t succeed in politics unless you have a following on social media and a base of small donors. That often means saying increasingly outrageous things and attacking the other side.

We get it: In the belly of the beast, it’s often more comfortable to stick with your tribe. To rail angrily against the other party on whatever issue. To vow to fight without compromise. But that can’t be an excuse as we work our way out of the current crisis, and eventually move to tackle longer-term challenges. This first compromise should set a precedent that Congress and the administration follow as they craft additional measures to heal those made sick and then repair the economy. Millions of people are suffering today—and the ripple effects are sure to be profound. We need members of Congress to re-kindle the spirit of cooperation that once fueled broad-based bipartisanship in politics. Then, Washington needs to make this sort of cooperation the norm, rather than the exception.

None of this will be easy. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle will in certain cases need to vote in favor of bills that contain provisions with which they disagree. But the standard in each case isn’t whether every provision of each bill is to an elected leader’s liking—it is whether the bill as a whole benefits the greater good of the whole nation. Democrats and Republicans should remember what this felt like to pass needed bipartisan legislation to fix a crisis. Speaker Pelosi and Secretary Mnuchin’s successful negotiation represents the way Washington is supposed to work. Country before party. It’s not impossible. Let’s hope to see more of that in the months to come.

Nancy Jacobson is CEO and founder No Labels, a group that seeks to move Washington beyond partisan gridlock and toward solutions to challenges faced by the country.


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