Bipartisanship is alive and well, but not in the Obama White House

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Article Highlights

  • On two important issues congressional Republicans and Democrats have reached constructive bipartisan agreements.

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  • People denounce Congress for legislative gridlock. But the real problem is at the other end of Pennsylvania Ave

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  • Obama administration often eschews bipartisan discussion

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Bipartisanship is dead. That’s the conventional wisdom, and there’s lots of evidence to support it.

But there’s evidence to the contrary as well. On two important issues,veterans’ health and job training, congressional Republicans and Democrats have, with little notice, reached constructive bipartisan agreements.

These are both issues on which everyone agrees government should be involved. The country certainly owes something to veterans. And no one’s proposing to eliminate job training programs altogether.

But government is also not doing a good job on either. The Veterans Affairs Department scandals have revealed a culture of lying and incompetence that comes as little surprise to those who have been scrutinizing the agency for many years.

And think-tank analysts both liberal and conservative have been concluding that government job training programs don’t do much to prepare people for work or help them get jobs.

The best job training, many experts agree, is a job. But job training programs have appeal to voters and they do probably help some not insignificant number of people move ahead.

So there’s an obvious need for legislation. And on these issues, as on so many others, Republicans and Democrats are in principled disagreement.

Nevertheless Senate Veterans Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders and House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller managed this week to come to an agreement. 

Sanders, a self-described Socialist, did not get all the money he wanted. And he accepted a provision that at least some veterans could get funds for medical treatment at private non-VA facilities.

Miller, who has being doing dogged oversight work that was not much noticed until last year when the Washington Examiner's Mark Flatten began highlighting it, made concessions as well.

The bill includes $5 billion for hiring more medical professionals and $1.7 billion for new VA facilities — more than many House Republicans might like.

The Republican-controlled House overwhelmingly approved the bill Wednesday on a 420-5 vote and the Democratic-majority Senate is expected to pass it quickly as well.

Both houses have already passed, the House by 415-6 and the Senate by 95-3, significant legislation reauthorizing and consolidating government job training programs.

It eliminates 15 existing programs, consolidates others, gives states more flexibility and attempts to orient job training programs to “in-demand skills.”

This represents some hard work at the subcommittee and committee level, notably by House Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline and ranking Democrat George Miller.

Miller, who is retiring from Congress this year, also helped to fashion the 2001 No Child Left Behind education act, working with a committee chairman named John Boehner. Both have shown that you can be strong partisans and still successfully negotiate bipartisan agreements.

I doubt that these are perfect pieces of legislation, and I suspect that none of their lead sponsors would claim they are. There’s always a danger that bipartisan agreements turn out to be mush and that negotiators put aside bolder reforms that would produce better results.

But they probably represent at least incremental progress toward better policy. And they refute the conventional wisdom that bipartisanship is dead, even in this politically polarized Congress.

What they also share in common is that the Obama White House seems to have had little or no involvement. Members of Congress and their staffs were left to do the hard work of analysis and negotiation themselves.

When the Obama administration does get involved, this kind of bipartisan compromise doesn’t seem to happen.

Second-term presidencies are ordinarily a time when the stars are in alignment for bipartisan reforms. Examples include the 1986 tax law and the 1997 Medicare reforms.

But not in Barack Obama’s second-term presidency. The Obama administration has ignored House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp’s tax rewrite, which would cut rates and eliminate many preferences.

When Camp was negotiating with Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, Obama removed the latter by appointing him ambassador to China. Baucus’s successor Ron Wyden is a skilled bipartisan legislator, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Obama White House have given him little running room.

Even on the one tax issue which Obama recognized as reform-worthy — cutting the U.S.’s highest-in-the-developed world corporate income tax—the administration has eschewed bipartisan discussion.

Instead it’s trying to make a campaign issue with a bill somehow barring companies from moving their corporate domiciles to lower-tax nations. Sort of like ordering water not to flow downhill.

Some people like to denounce Congress for partisan legislative gridlock. But the real problem is at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Michael Barone is a senior political columnist for the Washington Examiner. This column is reprinted with permission from washingtonexaminer.com.

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