Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Shared Committee Power And The Ambience of Bipartisanship

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I’ve tried to emphasize the importance of Congressional committees and subcommittees within the structure of our government; their relation to gridlock and dysfunction; and the idea of sharing political party power to vastly improve the functioning of the legislative and oversight roles of this critical branch of government. Previous postings include:




In these posts I have suggested that the House and Senate committee system which gives overriding power to the majority party is the Achilles' heel, the linchpin of Congressional dysfunction and is completely self imposed by operating procedures of the House and Senate. There is no Constitutional or legal requirement for this process. I have argued that if the country is divided 50-50 along political ideologies why do we give complete legislative and oversight control to the so-called “majority” party?

This system can only produce one-sided solutions to complex problems and issues. I have asked, wouldn’t it make sense, considering the political divide of the country, if the committees and subcommittees had an equal number of Republican and Democratic members and a shared power arrangement? Such an arrangement would immediately force bipartisanship and would result in much higher quality legislation and oversight at the start of the process. 

I highlighted the fact that the U.S. Senate actually operated under a shared power agreement for a brief five month period beginning in January 2001, following the election of George W. Bush. The agreement called for equal representation of Republicans and Democrats on all Senate committees. Senator Daschle said the “agreement makes a big downpayment on the bipartisanship we owe our country.” Senator Lott said, “I think this is a framework for bipartisanship. . . nonpartisanship, Americanship, that is what we ought to call it. . .” 

Since the posting on the 2001 agreement I’ve been searching for some reinforcement of the mood and feelings of bipartisanship as characterized by Senators Daschle and Lott regarding the shared power arrangement. Being from Michigan I recalled the time back in the 90s when the Michigan House of Representatives were locked in a tie of Republicans and Democrats following the election of Bill Clinton as President and John Engler as the state’s Governor.

I really had never followed up on that period of time and the details of that power sharing arrangement. Imagine my surprise when I uncovered one of the most detailed accounts of political power sharing that exists today. Daniel Loepp, the Chief of Staff of the Democratic co-Speaker at the time has brilliantly chronicled that 2-year period in Michigan history 1993-1994 in a 1999 book entitled, “Sharing the Balance of Power”.

I highly recommend the book to political wonks that enjoy the details of the legislative process and how it could be turned inside out with the reality of governing in the aftermath of a tie between the political parties. While the details are interesting, I was most impressed with the testimonials of the legislators who actually experienced the day to day interactions and happenings during that 2-year period in the early 1990s.

These are a diverse set of men and women representing all sectors of life from urban and rural communities across the State of Michigan. Their words and thoughts are refreshing and inspiring in today’s current state of intense political polarization that has crippled the functioning of our government. They give hope to the idea that there is a better way and a path forward that could heal some of the wounds and lead to a more sensible way to manage the legislative branch of government.

Here are brief excerpts of the thoughts of 26 Michigan legislators who express, far better than I ever could, what I am now calling the ambience of bipartisanship.


John Gernaat (R-Cadillac) – “Shared power will go down in history as an example of how people on both sides can work together to get things done.”

Ilona Varga (D-Detroit) – “Both sides had to compromise. I feel the people got the best two years of representation in the over eight years I have been there.”

Tom Middleton (R-Ortonville) – “The House had a much more open line of communication in solving partisan problems [referring to the fact that the Senate during this time remained under Republican partisan control].

Michael J. Griffin (D-Jackson) – “…people of goodwill and determination can put public policy ahead of partisan consideration. . . Students of government, civics, political science, et cetera, can learn a great deal from this experience.”

Glenn Oxender (R-Sturgis) – “It gave a variety of leadership and made bipartisan support necessary for the passage of each bill. I rate it as a success because of the significant amount of legislation that was passed.”

David Points (D-Highland Park) – “The Eighty-seventh Legislature was an example of an unbiased bipartisan balance.”

Timothy L. Walberg (R-Tipton) – “A pleasant by-product of this situation was the development of friendships with the members of the other party who were once only acquaintances.”

Clyde Le Tarte (R-Horton) – “I found that in the main, we tended to focus on policy issues instead of political advantage because political positions could not be sustained through the process.”

Jan C. Dolan (R-Farmington Hills) – “Even when a vote comes down along party lines, there appears to be a willingness to hear out all viewpoints. Michigan has been well served by this cooperative spirit.”

Richard A. Young (D-Dearborn Heights) – “I believe that you can learn from the fact that you can accomplish the people’s work and you don’t have to do it in a hostile manner.”

James Mick Middaugh (R-Paw Paw) – “People seemed to genuinely want to work together. You had to, or you did not get anything accomplished.”

James Agee (D-Muskegon) – “I think it made us respect those on the other side of the aisle and know that we had to compromise with them.”

Carl F. Gnodtke (R-Sawyer) – “I have often thought it worked well enough that there should be a constitutional amendment requiring equal numbers from both parties be elected to serve in the House.”

Joseph Palamara (D-Wyandotte) – “I found the shared power arrangement to be an unqualified success… To me, the essence of representative government was embodied in the shared power agreement.”

Harold J. Voorhees (R-Wyoming, MI) – “Truly shared, the power agreement that was adopted by the House of Representatives in 1993 is and was a genuine masterpiece – a model for future legislatures throughout the land.”

Candace Curtis (D-Swartz Creek) – “The experience was one of compromise between not only the two parties but also between controlling interest groups.”

Don Gilmer (R-Augusta) – “As a body we at least had a greater amount of respect for one another because of power sharing, and a lot of that still carries on.”

Lynn Jondahl (D-Okemos) – “Working under the shared power agreement was successful in that we quickly adapted to the new rules/procedures and were able to proceed quite smoothly.”

Susan Grimes Munsel (R-Howell) – “One, you had to have the best policy, or two, you had to have a lot of factions with you on an issue, and that kind of focus forces you into the central area which is where the best policy making is anyway.”

Clark Harder (D-Owosso) – “While political pundits swore in advance it would never work, they were obviously proven wrong.”

Tom Alley (D-West Branch) – “Power sharing was probably the greatest experience any legislator could go through in a career of elected office.”

Frank Fitzgerald (R-Grand Ledge) – “I think that what you learn from shared power is that it is possible in a tie situation to make a legislative body operate.”

Pat Gagliardi (D-Drummond Island) – “The best part of shared power, for me as well as many others, was the fact that relationships from both sides of the aisle improved on a personal as well as on the professional level. . . Having been in the majority and the minority, the people of the state of Michigan would be best served if each party was equally represented.”

Paul Baade (D-Roosevelt Park) – “An opportunity to develop a spirit of cooperation and negotiation to move on many issues.”

Kirk A. Profit (D-Ypsilanti) – “I am personally very grateful to have had the wonderful opportunity to represent the eighty-five thousand people in the Ypsilanti area at such an incredible time in Michigan history when new standards for legislative production were set and new foundations of faith in government were laid.”

William Bryant (R-Grosse Pointe Farms) – “Shared power works because it encourages each party to act like a responsible majority.” [Note: Rep. Bryant presented a proposal to the co-Speakers to perpetuate the agreement into the future as an historic opportunity to move “politics not just in Michigan but nationally past sheer partisanship. . .” He concluded by saying, “Seize the moment. Have the vision. Change what it means to be a member of a legislative body. Make history.”]

Can you imagine 26 diverse U.S. Congressional members commenting on the state of the current Congress with the sincerity, excitement and insightfulness of the comments above? Isn’t this what the vast majority of Americans want from their government and their legislators?

It is possible. There is a better way. #BetterGovmt