Rendell: States Gridlocked Over Abortion While Economies Stagnate

Five enlightening, ironic or just plain wrong observations from yesterday's Constitution Center panel discussion on bipartisanship.

Yesterday’s panel discussion at the National Constitution Center on bipartisanship and civic involvement had most of the typical trappings of panel discussions: A team of experts is arranged to discuss an issue, they emphasize the importance of the issue, give a few abstract suggestions for how to fix the issue, reemphasize the importance of the issue and are thanked for their time.

Still, talking about partisan rancor is better than not talking about it, and a group of former political heavy hitters in the Bipartisanship Policy Center convened to discuss how party factioning has dissuaded citizens from getting involved in civics—voting, running for office, and so on. (Watch the live stream below.) Some of the comments were enlightening, others ironic and others wrong. Here are five:

“Just to think about it, that the two most seminal political documents created were just across Independent Mall from here. Now just think about the fact that if we could bottle up the atmosphere in that room and ship it off to Congress, we would be onto something, right?” —Former Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME)

One of the most enduring mythologies about early America is that once upon a time, everyone got along — the Founding Fathers worked in dispassionate unison, devoid of the rancor that Snowe later said characterizes the “poisonous political environment” we find ourselves in. It’s a warm bit of nostalgia frequently evoked, and it’s a useful fiction to aspire to, but a fiction nonetheless. The poisonous political environment began before the country even started and has continued steadily until now. Remember, Thomas Jefferson’s vice president killed Alexander Hamilton. In a way, we’ve almost made progress.

“Where I’m from, if you tell me it’s mandatory, I’m probably not going to do it. I believe in freedom. … I lost my home and my community to Katrina. What I saw after that I will forever be appreciative of and indebted to. The faith-based people, the illegals that came and helped, I tell ya, it changed the attitude of illegal aliens, er, immigrants, because, we’d still be in debris down there.” Former Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS)

Ah, Trent Lott. Who could symbolize bipartisanship and faith in government more than someone whose lasting legacy was as the last outspoken supporter in the Senate of Strom Thurmond’s presidential candidacy, and who resigned in 2007 immediately before new revolving-door lobbyist reforms took place that would have limited Lott’s ability to walk through that door and become a lobbyist himself? Lott was responding to a comment about compulsory service in a national service organization and followed up with an observation on the unity of typically fractured groups immediately post-Katrina. In fairness, Lott did work on a number of bipartisan initiatives during his tenure in the Senate, and he’s currently a Senior Fellow at the BPC. But as a participant in a discussion about withering faith in government in the face of acrimony and influential corporate dollars, the BPC may have had better options.

“Take the issue of abortion. Abortion is dominating a lot of state legislatures and governors’ offices right now — the abortion debate, while the economies continue to stagnate.”Former Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA)

It’s important for followers of Philly’s often dysfunctional politics to know that off in the state house is a body of legislators that makes our city look like a symphony. Even with two Republican-controlled houses of state congress, Governor Corbett couldn’t even get a vote on his three major initiatives: Privatizing the PLCB, increasing funding for infrastructure and reforming pensions. States, says Rendell, have become unduly hung up on social issues that are constitutionally left to them, not the federal government, to legislate. This turns state houses into deafening chambers of bickering over the same few social issues and prevents anyone from ever having to actually do anything.

“There are countless jobs and fellowship programs in the federal government. White House fellowship programs, management fellowship programs, fellowship programs at NIH, at the National Endowment for the Arts. You name it, you can do it.” —Eric L. Motley, former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush; Vice President, the Aspen Institute

One of the ironies of the discussion was that the very avenues for civic engagement have in the past been objects of partisanship themselves. The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities are two favorite Republican targets of budget slashing. In 1995, the Republican-controlled Congress slashed the NEA’s endowment by two-thirds and in 2011 introduced plans to do away with both programs. That year, the party also proposed cutting the NIH’s budget by $1.6 billion.

“The two worst things in the world are the filibuster rule in the Senate and the Hastert rule in the House. If you put the Senate immigration bill, as is, to a vote in the House … it would pass. … But what’s stopping them? This unwritten Hastert rule. Filibuster? Find me anywhere in the constitution that says — in one case, in President Obama’s first two years, 40 Senators, representing 17 percent of the American people, could stop anything from becoming law. You tell me where the Constitution allows that to be. Those are the types of things we have to get over.” Rendell

The filibuster and its close House analog the Hastert rule (which requires that the majority of the majority party vote in favor of the bill in order for it to be brought to the House floor) are ultimately the essence to which venomous partisanship is reduced. The filibuster has been around since the early 1800s, but what analysts (and Rendell) find frustrating is its modern-day incessancy — something that was once a rarity used in extreme circumstances (such as Lott’s mentor Strom Thurmond who filibustered for over 24 hours during the debate over the Civil Rights Act) is now pro forma, and most bills and nominations, no matter how mundane, need a supermajority. The frequency of this type of legislative hostage taking is one of the few aspects of partisanship that is actually new.

A National Conversation: American Unity & Public Service from Bipartisan Policy Center and National Constitution Center on