In politics, the word “bipartisan” is inescapable. Everywhere you go and everywhere you look, the word, the idea and the connotation of bipartisanship is there. Generally speaking, bipartisanship refers to members of the two American political parties working together to pass legislation or solve problems. Widely regarded as a boon to our incredibly polarized political climate, bipartisanship has also been linked to more effective lawmaking in Congress. However, the way that the media portrays bipartisanship is disastrously flawed.
There exists a plethora of legislation that is overtly or covertly labeled bipartisan. Whether it’s in the title, or both a Republican and a Democrat co-sponsor it, bipartisanship is seen as a key method of winning legislative battles. According to Vox, as the margins in the Senate sit razor-thin — requiring every Democrat to vote with the party for a non-bipartisan bill to pass — bipartisan legislation has become a way for Congress to pass some legislation, even if only on less controversial issues. Countless times we have seen partisan efforts thwarted by individuals who feel that major legislation should be changed to appeal to a bipartisan audience, most recently Sen. Joe Manchin’s, D-W.Va., refusal to support the Build Back Better Act.
With this being the case, garnering support from Republicans has become increasingly important to the successful passage of legislation under the Biden administration. The Senate’s filibuster rule complicates that goal by requiring 60 votes for legislation to pass, requiring at least 10 Republican senators to support a piece of legislation in the current Senate. Some Democrats, frustrated by their inability to pass major legislation without Republican support, advocate for the abolition of the filibuster. This, in turn, angers pro-filibuster Republicans, further poisoning bipartisan negotiations.
Because of the importance of bipartisanship, in recent years, any bill that receives votes from the other party is labeled bipartisan, even if the number of votes is small. Ranging from high-profile targets to things that oftentimes fall through the cracks, from omnibus legislation to stand-alone bills, “bipartisanship” is everywhere. One high-profile example, the crowning achievement of the Biden administration so far, is the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law last year. Although it was widely regarded as a bipartisan achievement, the bill only received 13 out of the 209 Republican votes in the House of Representatives.
Another congressional measure seen as a bipartisan achievement was the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which was included in an omnibus bill that received only 18 Republican votes in the Senate and 29 in the House. Finally, even though only three Republicans voted to confirm Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the White House still referred to it as a “bipartisan confirmation.”
Where should the line be drawn? What makes something bipartisan? Does bipartisan support have to come from both chambers of Congress? Surely the support of three Republican senators out of 50 is not enough to make something bipartisan. The real question is whether 100 Republican members of the House, nearly half, would qualify. Misrepresenting these efforts as bipartisan diminishes the value of real, bonafide bipartisan politics, the likes of which we rarely see in today’s politics.
Take, for example, Supreme Court confirmations. Since the start of Bill Clinton’s presidency, 10 justices have been confirmed to the high court. The first of Clinton’s nominees, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an avowed liberal, received 96 votes in favor of her confirmation and 3 only votes against. Clinton’s second nominee, Justice Stephen Breyer — another liberal — received 87 votes. Chief Justice John Roberts, nominated by Republican former President George W. Bush, received 78. Comparing these Justices’ broadly bipartisan confirmations — despite their obvious ideological leanings — to the contentious, narrow confirmations of Justices Ketanji Brown Jackson and Amy Coney Barrett — who received 53 and 52 votes, respectively — we can see that partisanship has increased precipitously.
The most straightforward solution to the discrepancy between the ideal of bipartisanship and how it functions practically is to work against ever-increasing political polarization. It is easy to say polarization needs to be solved, but much more difficult to prescribe solutions.
One way to reduce polarization is to simply stop giving obviously partisan pieces of legislation the misnomer of “bipartisan.” Doing so sets the bar for bipartisanship incredibly low. Such a low bar allows legislators to negotiate less with the other party — without risking their ability to call a polarizing bill “bipartisan.” A collective effort by media outlets, lawmakers, writers and the public at large would have to be made to correct our habits. However, eliminating the idea of bipartisanship would be difficult because, once again, “bipartisan” legislators are more effective at passing legislation, and any good politician wants to be seen as someone who gets things done. Yet, whether you work in the confines of the political system or avoid politics completely there is something you can do: call out those responsible for the misrepresentation of bipartisanship. It would be in everyone’s best interest to say something when a lawmaker or journalist refers to “bipartisan” legislation — despite the opposite being true.
Sam Schmitz is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.