In a rare show of bipartisanship, 55 Democrats, 13 Republicans and two independents in the Senate passed a modest jobs bill yesterday. The process was relatively civil, especially compared with two of Washington’s recent legislative controversies, the stimulus bill and health care reform. The differences between how the latter two were crafted and sold and how the jobs bill was passed show that leaders of both parties might be learning from their mistakes and coming out of their hyper-partisan bubbles.
The stimulus package, officially called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed Congress a year ago with only three Republican votes from either chamber. Only seven Democrats voted against it. Both parties tried to put the blame for this near-party-line vote on the other, and they were right: Democrats were to blame. Republicans were to blame.
The Democrats crafted an enormous bill of political opportunism, much of which had nothing to do with stimulating anything. Using the economy’s collapse as an excuse to force through programs they’d always wanted, the Democrats crammed the bill full of pet projects and pork, including $10,000 for freezing sturgeon sperm. The bill’s positive effects have been negligible compared to its $862 billion price tag.
Republicans, for their part, weren’t eager to hand Barack Obama and his newly-minted congressional supermajority such a sweeping legislative victory. It never appeared likely that Obama would enjoy broad-based support from the GOP; the final vote confirmed everyone’s expectations.
If the stimulus debate was fraught with petty bickering and political grandstanding, the health care fight has been a downright nightmare. Democrats have put together another gigantic bill, this time less laden with pork but still beholden to special interests. While Obama has shown token interest in reaching across the aisle—most recently in his call for a health summit—the Democratic leadership has never undertaken an effort at serious compromise in good faith.
The increased political polarization of the last few decades has shown both parties that the best way to go from minority to majority is to obstruct the party in power. Republicans threw themselves into this strategy with a vengeance this summer and have since used distortion, parliamentary procedure and fear-mongering to keep the country from a reasoned debate on health reform. Many Republicans (and Democrats for that matter) have principled objections to the bill, but they have allowed anger and lies to obscure their message.
The stimulus and health care reform were examples of the worst kind of politics. They eroded Americans’ faith in their government. The jobs bill that passed yesterday stood in marked contrast to both.
The Democratic leadership included in the bill provisions on which both sides could agree, such as tax incentives to businesses that hire new workers and increased spending on public works projects. The bill was small—just $15 billion—and, unlike the stimulus, was specifically targeted to get people back to work. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid cast the legislation as part of a larger effort, promising more efforts to come, and there is reason to believe he might continue on this conciliatory course.
Republicans responded well to the newfound sense of cooperation. Most notably, Senator Scott Brown, hailed just a few weeks ago as the GOP’s savior from the tyranny of the Democratic supermajority, voted to break the gridlock. All in all, both parties acted reasonably and responsibly.
Washington is broken. It’s been broken for a very long time. Both major parties have shown themselves far more interested in politics than in policy and have done everything in their power to discredit their opponents rather than work with them.
A $15 billion jobs bill won’t forever change Washington’s tone. The Democrats are getting ready to make a last push on health care reform, and both sides have indicated it will get ugly.
But the jobs bill shouldn’t be discounted, either. It was a real victory for bipartisanship. Congressional leaders should be proud of their accomplishment and move forward in the spirit of cooperation they’ve engendered.
Nathaniel French is a junior theater major. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.