Despite what you’ve heard, there is room for bipartisanship.
The House and Senate have passed the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019. In addition to developing a potential pathway to the FY 2020 funding debate, the bill provides some interesting insights into how advancing policy is possible in a hyper-partisan and political atmosphere.
In some cases, policymakers, stakeholders, and advocates have followed the broader narrative that Congress has already given up on policymaking until after the 2020 election (a big gamble given what’s on the agenda).
While the merits of the budget deal will continue to be debated well after the bill is signed into law, some of the key takeaways counter traditional thinking in Washington, DC:
Bipartisanship is Possible
Countless publications have claimed “bipartisanship is dead.” In doing so, they have highlighted historic levels of partisanship on both sides of the aisle, increased prominence of party extremes, and a lack of real compromise on key legislation.
Much of the bipartisan work being done is below the radar and outside the media spotlight, which is why the notion that “bipartisanship is dead” seems to be so widespread. The budget deal, however, is an “above the fold” example of how Washington can still pass large, bipartisan legislative agreements (and should be a lesson to those sitting on the sidelines with the belief that moving legislation is not possible).
Without question, this is a bill of significant consequence. In addition to delaying the debt limit, the bill increases funding for both defense and non-defense programs, eliminates sequestration, and opens the door for FY 2020 appropriations bills.
This was largely the product of Speaker Pelosi and the White House – an unusual partnership to say the least. It highlights the potential for bipartisanship regardless of the broader dynamics and daily messaging wars in Washington, DC.
Oversight and Legislating Can Happen Simultaneously
At the most recent State of the Union address, President Trump proclaimed: “If there is going to peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way.” It was a widely covered statement and one that many agreed with; investigations don’t necessarily facilitate cooperation on legislation. In fact, an aggressive oversight agenda was something some policymakers feared as it could halt legislating altogether (and in some committees, it has).
Of course, the budget deal highlights that Democratic oversight of the White House can happen at the same time that Democrats are negotiating with the White House on major legislation. This could be a good sign for transportation, infrastructure, privacy, and funding legislation expected to be on the agenda in the fall.
Good Old-Fashioned Compromise Rules the Day
There are few (if any) policy issues that Republican and Democratic leadership can send to the President’s desk for signature that does not require compromise these days. The budget deal was no exception.
Conservatives and liberals alike took issue with the bill. Both sides thought the bill had real shortcomings and both parties found provisions to cheer. Some thought defense spending was too high, others thought the debt ceiling solution was short-sighted. It was the model of policymaking that regularly gets sidelined by the surrounding messaging war.
While this budget deal won’t spur Republicans and Democrats to run to the negotiating table on every bill, it could send a signal to policymakers that it is possible to win without winning on every provision.
Studying these trends could provide an optimistic view of the legislative agenda when Congress returns in the fall, which includes “must pass” legislation like the FY 2020 funding, the National Flood Insurance Program, Export-Import Bank, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funding, Medicaid DSH payment cut delay, and community health center funding. This also opens the door to the potential for privacy legislation, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), and surface transportation legislation among other bills.
While the dynamics of legislation in the fall might be unique and bring varied consequences, the budget deal provides some hope that a framework exists for bipartisan legislating in advance of what will be (and already is) a contentious election season.