Near the end of a recent visit with the Editorial Board, Maine Sen. Susan Collins brushed off questions about her plans for 2020. It was too soon to announce, she said, and there was too much work to do.

“It used to be in the odd (numbered) years, Congress legislated,” Collins said. “We actually put aside political differences, for the most part. I mean there was always some. But we passed major legislation, we worked together, we didn’t act as if we hated each other.”

She was talking about the years between presidential or midterm elections (held in even-numbered years), but she could have been musing about milk getting delivered in glass bottles, or seeing NBA players called for traveling – artifacts of a bygone era.

Even though voters always say they want bipartisan cooperation, and, at times, our system demands it, powerful forces work against its making a comeback. According to some interesting recent research, members of either party get no political benefit from doing the kind of work Collins recalls fondly. And the same public that says they want cooperation also says that they regard members of the other party with contempt.

These trends are so deeply entrenched, they may not change even if the people in office wanted them to.

Or, as my late Aunt Zora used to say, “Things are bad and they are going to get worse.”

Whether it’s an odd or even year, all of the incentives in the system push for more partisanship, and that’s been true for some time.

PERVERSE INCENTIVES

University of Maryland political scientist Frances Lee has tracked the history of party control of Congress and how it affects the ability of the institution to work. What she found was that real competition between two parties, where the minority is never more than an election or two away from taking control, has made bipartisanship a game for losers.

In her book “Insecure Majorities,” Lee chronicles how one-party dominance – like the Republican Party’s 50 years of power following the Civil War and the Democrats’ long run in the middle of the 20th century – offered a lot of opportunities to work across party lines.

Since the minority party never expected to win a majority, its members had an interest in improving the majority’s bills. And the majority was not so worried about losing power that it required strict discipline of its members, who could stray when it made sense for their constituents.

But since 1980, control of the House and Senate have shifted frequently, and the size of the majorities has been much smaller than it was in the past. Moderate members from swing districts became the biggest targets in election campaigns, making each of the caucuses more politically cohesive.

Lee points out that the majority party is better off politically if it pushes through its agenda on a partisan basis than if it works with the minority to pass something more moderate and less pleasing to the base. And the minority party has nothing to gain from making the majority look good by passing legislation, even if its impact could have been softened with compromise. It is much better politically to dig in its heels and wait until the next election.

Not only do the parties disagree about how to solve problems, but they also don’t even agree on what the problems are.

Twenty years ago, the Pew Research Center asked Democrats and Republicans to list the issues that matter to them most. Four issues – education, Social Security, crime and health care – made the top five concerns for members of both parties, according to the poll.

WHAT ARE KEY ISSUES? IT DEPENDS

Asked the same question again in 2019, Democrats and Republicans didn’t have a single issue in common among their top five, with Republicans listing terrorism, the economy, immigration, Social Security and the military, and Democrats naming health care, education, the environment, Medicare and poverty.

This kind of divide does not set up the atmosphere of mutual trust and respect required for the kind of bipartisanship people say they miss. In her analysis of the Pew report, Amy Walter of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report says this won’t be fixed by more civil discourse or less inflammatory social media.

“When one side sees that the issues they believe are the most essential to their livelihood and success are either being ignored or denigrated by the other side, well, guess what, they are going to be angry. And full of contempt.”

Maybe 20 years from now, those values will have come back in line, and we have a national consensus over what really matters. Until then, expect more partisanship, even in the odd years.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: gregkesich


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