Test for bipartisanship

Posted: Tuesday, December 19, 2000

The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:

The bipartisanship that George W. Bush has elevated into a major test and goal of his administration could be a refreshing change. He set a tone this week, during his first visit to Washington as president-elect, by visiting with congressional leaders of both parties. Already he's being pressed by Democrats and pundits to give ground on his campaign proposals; to push for them would violate bipartisanship, some Democrats say. Of course, if he gave ground now Mr. Bush would be skewered for inconstancy. He says, as you might expect, that he'll fight to accomplish what he promised during the campaign.

The early jockeying is partly about tactics: Is Mr. Bush better off, from his point of view, forging ahead right off with his biggest, and in some cases, more controversial proposals, or should he look for small accomplishments that he could more easily steer through a closely divided Congress? Some of his lieutenants have signaled a willingness to move first in areas where progress might be most possible, like education, while sending tougher challenges like Social Security reform to a bipartisan commission.

But the jockeying also reflects a truth about bipartisanship that no one likes to talk about much. Mr. Bush's main campaign promises remain anathema to many Democrats, and the things the Democrats like least about them tend to be precisely those that many Republicans like most. Likewise, the policy initiatives dearest to many Democrats are not favored by Mr. Bush and his party. Does bipartisanship, as Mr. Bush defines it, mean substantive compromise, or something different?

The president-elect favors, for example, a tax cut whose cost, realistically estimated, would be more than $1.5 trillion in the first 10 years, and would rise thereafter. He says, with most Republicans, that the cut is affordable in that the budget is in surplus, that part of the surplus ought to be returned to the taxpayer and that the cut will help prevent a recession. Democrats argue that the bulk of the money should be kept in the public sector against the looming cost of the baby boomers' retirement. They would rather pay down debt. They object as well that the cut would mainly benefit the better-off. But Republicans note that the better-off also pay most taxes. House Speaker Dennis Hastert meanwhile suggests that perhaps the cut could be passed piecemeal, least-controversial provisions first.

Mr. Bush has likewise proposed the partial privatization of Social Security-letting people "keep" and invest a share of their Social Security taxes in their own retirement accounts. Implicit in that, though not discussed in the campaign, is a reduction in guaranteed Social Security benefits. Republicans say such cuts are inevitable without a larger tax increase than either party will support, and that the investment income will help offset them. They also argue that society gains if individuals are more responsible for their own retirement income and government is less so.

Mr. Bush would also add a drug benefit to Medicare, but in doing so would apparently join congressional Republicans in trying to restructure that program too. Instead of being itself the insurer and paying people's bills directly, the government would move in the direction of giving them chits to buy private insurance. Some Democrats likewise favor such a system of "premium support," but only if it is accompanied by a high degree of regulation to keep insurers and providers from taking unfair advantage of taxpayers and beneficiaries alike.

Other policy clashes are likely. Campaign finance reform will be an early issue. Almost all Democrats profess to support the leading bill by Sens. John McCain and Russell Feingold, but Mr. Bush together with the Republican leadership of both houses emphatically does not. Many Democrats support environmental and other regulatory actions the Clinton administration's parting gift of an economy-wide ergonomics regulation, for example that the incoming administration is thought likely to oppose. Mr. Bush would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration; many Democrats would not. He opposes gun-control legislation that many of them support.

So there are ways to start toward bipartisanship, but big boulders remain in the path. The issues -- tax cuts, aid to the elderly, campaign finance - are the same ones on which the now blessedly departed 106th Congress foundered. It spent two years doing almost nothing, in part because neither party had decisive power. Now the Republicans, for the first time in almost a half-century, control the White House and both houses of Congress. That gives them a new and major advantage. Simply by signing some of the measures that President Clinton vetoed or would have vetoed, Mr. Bush might assemble some early accomplishments. But the next Congress will be even more closely divided than the last. To steer a version of his program through it, Mr. Bush will be under pressure to abandon many of the program's most distinctive parts. That would constitute bipartisanship, but disappoint many of his own partisans. That is one dilemma facing the new administration.

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