Washington's bitter partisanship breeds bad public policy

October 19, 2005|By NANCY ROMAN

WASHINGTON -- People naturally disagree about who is responsible for the partisan tone and tactics in Washington these days. But most agree that it's worse than it used to be. Few on either side are enjoying it much.

More important, this partisanship threatens a dumbing down of policy.

That said, a call for bipartisanship in foreign policy gets nowhere. For some, it sounds like a request to listen to the out-of-power party even though it never listened to those in power. To others, bipartisan implies something along the lines of "bland," "homogenous," "stripped of passion" or "watered down."

But it needn't be any of these. Webster's defines bipartisanship as "relating to or involving members of both parties." A policy - foreign or domestic - that's born on one side of the aisle but nurtured and challenged by the finest minds in both parties is superior policy, plain and simple. We need to work with both halves of our collective foreign policy brain.

We saw this with President Jimmy Carter's pursuit of the Panama Canal treaties, in which he worked closely with Senate Republican Leader Howard Baker to win passage for what was originally viewed by many to be "the great canal giveaway."

We saw this again when President Ronald Reagan sought to protect funding for the MX missile, working closely with top Democrats Thomas S. Foley, Les Aspin, Al Gore and others and later establishing the bipartisan Scowcroft commission on nuclear modernization and arms control.

As these examples illustrate, the debate and deliberation between the parties does not need to be passionless. It doesn't even have to be polite. It doesn't always produce a policy that's centrist, either.

It does, however, need to happen. Without it, policies fail to benefit from the honing fire of constructive criticism. And that's exactly what's happened over the past 10 years, not just the five of the Bush administrations.

The reasons are many, chief among them that few Democrats and Republicans in Washington know each other. Members of Congress blast in Tuesday morning, leave town Thursday evening, if at all possible, and live their lives in 15-minute increments while in Washington.

In the old days (and by that I mean the 1980s, when I worked on Capitol Hill), people got to know one another on the baseball field, through trips with their spouses and children and in dinners on the weekend. It's harder to vilify someone whose son is on your son's Little League team.

Time is somehow scarcer now, too. With the proliferation of interest groups, congressional committees, staff and hearings, there's more to do. The tyranny of technology puts most of us within easy striking distance via BlackBerry or cell phone. There's probably more interaction than ever before - yet less of the kind that builds friendship and trust.

The loss of the bond between Democrat and Republican has given way to a culture that discourages, and sometimes punishes, interparty deliberation and debate. Recent history offers both extremes. At times, the opposition has embraced policy without challenging it, as happened with Iraq. At other times, the opposition reflexively rejects policy without truly considering it, as happened with the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

It's easier to define a problem than to solve it. The lack of bipartisanship is particularly nettlesome because many of the social root causes are intractable. A few institutional changes would help to foster interparty dialogue. Members of Congress, for example, should travel abroad more, not less. Travel not only educates members about the world but also helps to establish relationships across the aisle that serve the policy process so well.

But in the end, real progress will require leadership from policymakers themselves. The call is not to meet the other side halfway. It is to engage in a discussion that solicits, considers and understands criticisms and alternative proposals. To forgo the process voluntarily is to choose inferior policy.

Nancy E. Roman, vice president and director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Washington Program, is the author of Both Sides of the Aisle: A Call for Bipartisan Foreign Policy.

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