New bipartisan report on "Governing in a Polarized America" hamstrung by polarization it condemns

Bipartisan does not mean bold

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Bipartisan Policy Center is one of our most distinguished political think tanks and the pondering perch for many former members of Congress.  They’ve released a wide-ranging report with an excellent title: “Governing in a Polarized America.” 

Unfortunately, the high point of the report is probably that title. The report, which is primarily a long list of pragmatic and incremental recommendations, seems to be hamstrung by the very polarization it rightly condemns. 

The recommendations are built so as not to offend or rock the boat at a time when the boat needs to be rocked.  There is nothing in the report that will challenge the basic structure of polarization, a two-party duopoly that sponsors endless, expensive campaigns that deter our best and brightest from entering politics.

That was probably inevitable for a report written primarily by equal numbers of former Democratic and Republican legislators, some former CEOs, a couple conservative columnists and non-profit executives.  The stature of the group is almost inversely proportionate to novelty and daring of the recommendations.  In short, the diagnosis is right on but the prescription is from the days before antibiotics.

The Executive Summary notes:

“The sad truth is that both major political parties firmly believe the other party is engaged in a constant mission of manipulating these rules to obtain an unfair advantage. This sense of distrust permeates the entire electoral process and reverberates into the legislative realm. If Americans do not trust that the system is on the level and think it has broken down, the United States will no longer be able to claim a government that rules with the consent of the governed.”

Well, it is both sad and true that poll after poll after poll has shown that Americans, in fact, do not think the system is on the level and they do think it has broken down; yes, the government does have the consent of the governed still in a way that, say, North Korea doesn’t, but that consent is about as anemic as you can imagine in times of relative peace and prosperity.

The first set of recommendations properly focuses on election reform: re-districting should be done by bipartisan commissions; more people should vote in primaries; there should be a national primary day; there should be better disclosure of contributions.

The report goes on to offer a variety of changes in Congressional procedure, most importantly that the House and Senate should simultaneously meet for five-day-a-week sessions, three weeks in a row. Right now, Congress generally is open for business Tuesday-Thursday and members scatter back to their districts for long weekends of campaigning and constituent work.

The report also suggests voluntary community service for all Americans between 18 and 20.  Another recommendation typical of the milk-toasty nature of this compendium says, “Colleges and universities should reaffirm their missions to develop engaged and active citizens and encourage service in formal and informal programs.” Surely such an august assemblage can do better than this.

The research and background in the report, apart from the recommendations, is excellent and useful. If anything, this document is a fabulous teaching tool.

The report says:

“These proposals are not a magic elixir that will restore America’s body politic to health overnight. We do not call for a constitutional convention, the establishment of a viable, national third party, or for a billion-dollar campaign to educate the public. Our recommendations are practical and achievable and, if implemented, will be a first step toward lowering the temperature on an overheating, polarized political process. We present a series of ideas that can generate true bipartisan support while remaining mindful of the political divisions that define the country and the political imperatives that influence the decisions of elected leaders.”

Of course it’s true that there is no magic elixir. But why not embrace reforms that would help third parties? Why not a Constitutional convention to deal with campaign reform – and even a debate on the Second Amendment?  Why not a limit on the duration of elections?

It may indeed be true that because of “the political divisions that define the country and the political imperatives that influence the decisions of elected leader”, bolder recommendations would be nothing but pipe dreams.

If so, this report may be a more bitter indictment of our political reality than intended.

Dick Meyer is Chief Washington Correspondent for Scripps News. An experienced writer, reporter and author, Meyer was executive producer for the BBC's news services in America, NPR's executive editor and editorial director of Meyer also wrote a book on American culture and politics,  "Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium"  (Crown Publishing/Random House, August 2008).

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