Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Americanship v. Political Powership

I wrote about this back in March 2017, but it's time to revisit this historic time in bipartisan politics.

Fall of 2000. It was a tumultuous time in American politics. The November election had resulted in close votes, hanging chads, contested elections, recounts, court challenges, uncertainty, protests, and public unrest. 

The country was deeply divided. Following weeks of uncertainty after the election, George W. Bush was finally pronounced the winner when he received only 537 more votes than Al Gore in a Florida recount. The controversial recount finally ended with a U.S Supreme Court 5-4 split decision to stop the vote recounting and overruling a 4-3 Florida Supreme Court split decision in favor of Gore. That gave Bush 271 Electoral College votes compared to Al Gore's 266; but, Gore received over 540,000 more popular votes than Bush. Adding to the deep political division of the country, Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate received a total of over 2,800,000 popular votes, drawing them away from the primary candidates. The level of national unrest and divisiveness among the American electorate could not have been higher.
If it all sounds familiar, it is. And, American politics has never quite been the same since. Further, similarities on top of the dramatic Presidential race arise in the fact that the down-ballot U.S. Senate races resulted in a 50-50 split between Republicans and Democrats. A situation that could easily repeat itself depending on the results of two runoff elections in Georgia in early January 2021.

Washington politicos were in a tizzy. How would they govern? How would the public react to such a narrow and disputed margin of power when Gore actually won the popular vote and the contentious Supreme Court involvement? There were calls for compromise, bipartisanship and getting the parties to work together. Bush's VP Dick Cheney could break what was at the time thought to be numerous tie votes, but what would be the public reaction?

In the midst of the confusion and uncertainty, Senate leaders Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Trent Lott (R-MS) worked diligently through the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season to craft a remarkable and unprecedented "powersharing agreement" based on what they said was the concept of trust and bipartisanship. Among other items, the agreement provided for Republican chairs of all Senate committees after January 20, 2001; equal party representation on all Senate committees; equal division of committee staffs and operating budgets between the parties; procedures for discharging measures blocked by tie votes in committee; a restriction on the offering of cloture motions on amendable matters; restrictions on floor amendments offered by party leaders; eligibility of Senators from both parties to preside over the Senate; and general provisions seeking to reiterate the equal interest of both parties in the scheduling of Senate chamber business.   

At a press conference, Senator Lott said, "nobody can win on 51 votes. . . [it's] not what the American people expect from us". The full Senate (including then Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE)) approved the agreement by voice vote without objection and Daschle and Lott praised it as "miraculous", "historic", “a big down payment on the bipartisanship”, “a serious dose of reality”, “a framework for bipartisanship, nonpartisanship, Americanship.” Despite the many accolades, the agreement only survived for five months when the politicians quickly traded its many advantages for a few percentage points of political power as one member switched parties resulting in a 51-49 split. One has to ask, why do Americans have to sacrifice miraculous, historic, reality, bipartisanship, nonpartisanship and above all Americanship for a few votes of political powership?

From the Congressional Record, January 5, 2001, (107th Congress, 1st Session Issue: Vol. 147, No. 3 — Daily Edition). Senators Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Trent Lott (R-MS) on the Senate Floor discussing Senate Resolution 8, The Powersharing Agreement. [See the full text] The agreement was expanded by a leadership colloquy on January 8, 2001.

Mr. DASCHLE. The other day, I quoted the writer Thomas Wolfe who said: 
America is not only the place where miracles happen, they happen all the time.
If the resolution I will soon introduce is not miraculous, it is, at the very least, historic. It is also fair and reasonable. The details and the spirit of this agreement, which I expect the Senate to pass later today, should enable us to conduct our Nation's first 50/50 Senate in a most productive and bipartisan manner.

I especially thank the Republican leader, Senator Lott. We will enter into a colloquy in a period of time to be later determined, but I must say, without his leadership and his sense of basic fairness, this agreement would not have come about. He and I have spent many hours over the last several months, and now weeks, and certainly in the last several days, negotiating the details of this agreement. He spent many more hours consulting with the members of his caucus about it. He and they deserve credit for taking this unprecedented step. . .

Our negotiations involve many difficult issues and many strongly held opinions. Neither party got everything it wanted. Both sides made concessions. Both caucuses made principled compromises. That is the essence of democracy.

This agreement accurately reflects the historic composition of the Senate. More important, I believe it reflects the political thinking of the American people. It calls for equal representation on Senate committees. Every committee would have the same number of Republicans and Democrats. And it specifies that Republicans will chair the committees after January 20. It allows for equal budgets and office space for both caucuses, at 50/50.

One of the most vexing questions we struggled with during our negotiations was how to break ties when committees are divided equally. We have agreed that in the event of a tie vote, either leader can move to discharge a bill or nomination. The Senate will then debate the motion to discharge for four hours, and that time will be equally divided. There will then be a vote on the motion. If the motion passes, the bill or nomination would be placed on the calendar.

Similarly, the resolution allows committee Chairs to discharge a subcommittee in the case of a tie vote and place the legislative item or nomination on the full committee agenda.

We arrived at this process after much thinking and exchange of ideas. Senator Lott has been concerned that equal representation on the committees could lead to gridlock. While I do not share that concern, I believe this was a fair concession to get this agreement. . .

Today's agreement makes a big downpayment on the bipartisanship we owe our country. Democrats and Republicans made significant concessions, putting the national interest first and putting party aside. . .

Mr. LOTT. Mr. President, I wouldn't say this is my preferred result, but I think it is a reasonable one with a serious dose of reality. We have work to do and we need to begin it now, not in a week or two or three or four. We need to conclude the assignment of our Members to the all important committees that will be having hearings on the nominees. . .

I would prefer to have a clear advantage on every committee and a clear advantage number-wise on everything. While that is preferable, it is not the reality. . .

What we have here, as difficult as it may make life for us, as difficult as it may be for our committee members and our chairmen and ranking members to make this situation work, it is going to require additional work, but it can be done. It is going to force us to work together more than we have in the past. No doubt. I do not think that is bad. I think this is a framework for bipartisanship. There has been a lot of talk about that word, and I am sure there are some people in this city, in this Chamber, who smirk at that, laugh at that. People across America are saying: I have heard enough of that; let's get some results here. . .

It is a framework to see if we really mean it. It can force us to live up to the truest and best meaning of that word-- nonpartisanship, Americanship, that is what we ought to call it--to find a way to get to these issues. . .

This is a classic case of extending the hand of friendship, of good faith. Will it lead to tremendous accomplishments or will that hand of friendship be bitten or the posterior kicked by one side or the other? It could, but we have to start from a position of good faith and reach out and say we are going to make this work.

If it does not work, then the American people will see. If these 50/50 committees do not function, then we can talk about obstructionism, and one way or the other, the American people will know who is trying to make it work and who is stalling it. If we come to this floor and have a debate on a tax bill and it passes this Senate by whatever number and does not get to conference or is tied up in conference or is killed in conference, do you think the American people are going to stand for that? I do not think so. We cannot let that happen. [emphasis added]
On May 24, 2001, Republican James Jeffords left the party to become an Independent and began caucusing with the Democrats, thus breaking the 50/50 party split in the Senate. While it only lasted five months, the discussion above is refreshing in today’s extreme, mega polarized Congressional and public atmosphere. There are many lessons to be learned here and we should reflect on the words.

Yes, it's a different time with many different actors. President-elect Joe Biden has promised to try to work with Republicans and get things done in a cooperative and bipartisan way. It is a statesman-like aspiration and endeavor that many would call foolhardy, unrealistic and untenable in today's political environment. 

The 2001 shared power agreement and its rationale may provide a beginning point for discussion of the need to change the committee power structure that currently exists and is doomed to produce one-sided solutions to exceedingly complex problems and issues. The current debate over a nationwide health care system is a great example. What good does it do if one party narrowly passes a comprehensive health care plan by a couple of votes that is then overturned or gutted with the next transition of political power a few years later. 

We keep repeating this senseless act of governance over and over in a political environment that could not be more divided and appears to be entering a new era of obscurity and darkness. Former President Barack Obama recently said something to the effect that our politics have ventured into a new space where not only do politicians spread lies and misinformation without consequences; but, truth itself no longer matters. 

With this as a starting point for the new President, the idea of working cooperatively to devise bipartisan solutions to the great issues of our time becomes dubious at best. It will take a masterful degree of wizardry and communication skills to create a foundation to even begin discussions along these lines. Hopefully President Biden can tap his own years of political experience and construct a governing nucleus by appealing to the more reasoned and informed members of both parties. Additionally he can seek out influencers outside of Congress and input from seasoned party elders that have viewed the current state of affairs and can assist by sharing their insights and positions of leadership to communicate to their political constituencies and the public. I have suggested various powersharing ideas on this blog.

The bottom line as I have said before, what is our choice? We either work together or we settle for continued political chaos, massive unrest and riotous division among the populous. Additionally, nothing is accomplished; problems go unresolved; and our international reputation is diminished to the largest banana republic on the globe. We need to reflect on the words of our very first President in 1785, when he commented on a similar troubling time"We are either a United people or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of general concern act as a nation... If we are not, let us no longer act a farce by pretending it."