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History of Bipartisanship

1787: The Great Compromise

In debating a new model for self-rule that would eventually become the Constitution, states’ delegates in the summer of 1787 were so intensely divided over the difficult idea of congressional representation that the very topic threatened to end the Constitutional Convention. Representatives from small states were loathe approve any plan that tampered with the equal representation they currently enjoyed under the Articles of Confederation. Representatives from large, populous states—who wanted proportional representation—thought the current system was obviously unfair. It was Connecticut’s well-respected Roger Sherman who proposed a compromise: a proportional House of Representatives and a Senate with equal representation, an idea that seems familiar to us now, but was so radical in 1787 that, at first, it was dismissed by the group. Eventually the Connecticut Compromise—known now as the Great Compromise—was adopted and the opposing sides in the debate each felt vindicated.

1860: Lincoln’s Team of Rivals

As smaller political parties were evolving into what was to become the modern Republican party, each faction, representing differing viewpoints on slavery and federal power, had a favorite son in the presidential election of 1860. By the time of the Republican party convention, three men representing these factions emerged as party favorites: N.Y. Sen. William Seward, Ohio Gov. Salmon P. Chase and Missouri judge Edward Bates. That all three lost the presidential nomination to a country lawyer named Abraham Lincoln was the first surprise of 1860; that Lincoln won the general election and then appointed all three of his Republican rivals to his cabinet was the second. Lincoln later added a Democrat—Edwin Stanton—as his Secretary of War. Lincoln’s so-called “team of rivals” has come to be seen as a watershed political moment; as Lincoln himself explained to newspaper reporter, he felt had no right to deprive the country of its strongest minds simply because they sometimes disagreed with him.

1945: Truman’s Supreme Court Appointee

While President Franklin D. Roosevelt had some bipartisan record—he appointed Republicans as Secretaries of War and Navy—his squelched plan to pack the Supreme Court was still a bitter pill among Washington Republicans. Three months after FDR’s death, new President Harry S Truman was faced with an open Supreme Court seat, seven associate Court justices already appointed by the Democratic FDR and a legislative branch full of skeptical Republican eyes waiting to see what he would do. While naming a Democrat to the seat likely would have been approved, Truman broke with his party and instead chose Republican Ohio Sen. Harold Burton for the Court. It was an olive branch to congressional Republicans—and a chance for a new president to find common ground with the congressional opposition.

1945: Senator Vandenberg’s Bipartisan Foreign Policy

While Americans were fighting overseas in World War II, many congressional Republicans were increasingly wary of a lengthy American involvement in Europe after the war ended. Among these isolationists, Michigan Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg was the unofficial spokesman. But seeing Democrats and Republicans growing increasingly polarized about America’s role in the world while recognizing the threat a remilitarized Germany and Japan might pose, Vandenberg was moved to address the Senate in 1945, declaring that no country could “immunize itself” from the rest of the world. Vandenberg offered his cooperation to FDR in post-war planning that eventually encompassed America’s role in both the United Nations and NATO. Years later, Vandenberg summed up his view of bipartisan foreign policy: “In a word, it simply seeks national security ahead of partisan advantage.” Politics, he famously said, “stops at the water’s edge.”

1964: Civil Rights Act

With civil rights marches and racial violence dominating the news, the issue of African Americans’ legal rights could no longer be ignored. A civil rights bill proposed by congressional Democrats and supported by the White House had just passed the House of Representatives when, in early 1964, the Senate took it up for debate. Twenty-one of the Senate’s 67 Democrats were from the South and publicly opposed the bill; as a bloc they began what became the longest filibuster in Senate history. The Senate’s Democratic leaders needed Republican votes to stop the filibuster and Democratic majority leader Mike Mansfield asked his counterpart, Republican Senator Everett Dirksen to step in: “I appeal to the distinguished minority leader whose patriotism has always taken precedence over his partisanship, to join with me … in finding the Senate’s best contribution … to the resolution of this grave national issue,” Mansfield said. Dirksen did more than join with Mansfield—he exhorted his colleagues to end not just the filibuster but America’s difficult past and bring the Civil Rights Act to a vote. “I appeal to all Senators,” he told the chamber. “We are confronted with a moral issue. Today let us not be found wanting …” With Dirksen’s leadership, 27 Republican senators joined 44 Democrats to end debate on June 10, 1964; the bill passed nine days later.

1965: The Great Society

A vision of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Great Society program was given to Congress as a policy agenda in January 1965. As one of the most ambitious agendas in American history, the Great Society program, which took its name from one of President Johnson’s speeches, aimed to eliminate poverty and racial injustice, increase aid to education, promote urban renewal, and conservation, to name just a few. Congress answered the president’s call to action and enacted, with some adjustments, many of Johnson’s recommendations. The Secondary Education Act of 1965’s foundation lies within Johnson’s Great Society and garnered great support from legislators of both parties, passing with no amendments and little debate in only 87 days. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Medicare, and the creation of the Corporation of Public Broadcasting are just some of the programs that resulted in both parties of Congress working together to implement real change in the American societal landscape.

1969: Man on the Moon

When the Soviet Union launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik 1, into space on October 4, 1957, the U.S. found itself with only a fledgling space program. Alarmed at what it perceived as the Soviet Union’s technological lead in space, Congress urged President Dwight D. Eisenhower to take immediate action and support a larger U.S. space program. It was only with the collaboration and bipartisanship of members of Congress that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was conceived and then signed into being by President Eisenhower in 1958. Eleven years later, astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon, successfully returning to earth in Apollo 11. Only with the bipartisan support of presidents and Congress alike has NASA, 30 years later, still been provided with the resources and tools it needs to keep our space dreams alive.

1973: Endangered Species Act

In 1973, President Richard Nixon called on Congress to make sweeping changes to U.S. environmental policy, calling current species conservation efforts inadequate. Democratic lawmakers Representative John Dingell and Senator Harrison Williams authored the endangered species bills which drew wide support of their Republican colleagues. Congress passed the Endangered Species Act of 1973 with overwhelming support from both sides of the aisle. The new law included protections for plants, invertebrates and the ecosystems on which they depend. Once a species was placed on the endangered list, the ESA would be tasked to come up with a plan to return it to healthy, stable levels. In 2009, more than 20 species have been de-listed due to recovery and many others have had their status down listed from “endangered” to “threatened.”

1977: The Food Stamp Program

The United State’s first Food Stamp program—the government assistance plan to provide food to the needy—was created during the Great Depression but phased out in 1943 when it was no longer needed. When the Kennedy Administration reintroduced a pilot test of the program in the early 1960s, it was not universally welcomed back, a division that only increased when the Johnson Administration made the program a permanent part of its “Great Society” a few years later. Though it was a federal assistance program, it was run by the states, which, backed by Republicans in Congress, worried about the administrative costs associated with the rapidly growing program. As various bills were introduced in the 1970s to control costs and refine the eligibility requirements of the burgeoning program, Democratic supporters began to worry too many obstacles were being put in front of families who needed help. But in 1977, Republican Senator Bob Dole and Democratic Senator George McGovern joined forces to support a bipartisan compromise intended to address both sides’ concerns: control costs by more tightly focusing eligibility requirements to the truly needy while also streamlining the program’s purchase processes. In the end, the two senators convinced their colleagues that the legislation they supported could achieve both Democratic and Republican goals—and the 1977 Food Stamp Act became law.

1983: Social Security Reform

Almost from its inception in 1935, Social Security has been one of the thorniest political issues in Washington. Seen on the left as an immutable promise to American citizens and on the right as an unmanageable beast destined to bankrupt the government, it’s easy to see why Social Security is nicknamed the “third rail” of policy debate; it burns anyone who dares touch it. But in the early 1980s, official Washington had no choice; the Social Security Trust Fund was poised to begin running a deficit. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed a commission to study solutions to the looming problem. When the commission made its recommendations in 1983, it was Republican Sen. Bob Dole and Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Monyihan—party leaders respected at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue—who led a bipartisan group of legislators in turning the recommendations into legislation. Trying to keep the Social Security Fund solvent would mean amending the program, a move the group knew would likely mean an intense and bitter partisan battle in the halls of power. But Moynihan reminded his cohorts to focus on solving the discrete problem at hand and not get swayed by the partisan debate swirling around them. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions,” Moynihan famously quipped, “but not their own facts.” In the end, the group’s reforms to the Social Security Act passed and were signed into law by President Reagan.

1986: Tax Reform Act

Some bipartisan moments are borne of a desire to stand on high moral principles, others are borne of more down-to-earth interests. In the divided government of 1986, Republican President Ronald Reagan found himself with a Democratic House and a Republican Senate. While the situation seemed ripe for gridlock, when it came to the 1986 Tax Reform Act, just the opposite happened—nobody wanted to look like the bad guy who killed tax reform. Lowering taxes was a hallmark of Reagan’s presidential campaigns; reforming the tax code was a goal of both parties (Democrats favored simplifying the system and eliminating loopholes, Republicans favored treating capital gains and investment income the same as regular income). An unlikely alliance was formed. Add in two powerful committee chairmen in the House (Rep. Dan Rostenkowski) and Senate (Sen. Bob Packwood) who saw passage of the bill as a test of their political might and the United States got what cynics said could never be done: the biggest and most complete overhaul of the tax code in post-war America.

1990: Americans with Disabilities Act

While Americans had elected a disabled man as president in 1932, it was not until almost 70 years later that the rights of people like President Franklin D. Roosevelt became protected under law. The Americans with Disabilities Act, which makes it illegal to discriminate based on disability, was signed into law by President H.W. Bush in 1990. The landmark civil rights legislation had been difficult to pass, however, with critics claiming that disabled individuals were being accommodated unnecessarily and would cause an undue burden on employers. Seeing the need to protect a minority from discrimination, members of Congress on both sides of aisle came together to pass the ADA. Bipartisan Policy Center founders Senators Bob Dole and George Mitchell were early supporters of the law and were instrumental in its passage.

1995: Blue Dog Democrats Formed

In the historic 1994 mid-term elections, House Republicans staged an unprecedented takeover of the congressional body, turning a large Democratic majority in a serious minority. For some Democrats, though, the election-day thumping wasn’t surprising. Forty-seven House Democrats, fiscally moderate if not downright conservative and mostly from conservative-leaning districts, had long grown wary of what they saw as their party’s drift to the left and its unyielding demand to toe an orthodox party line. Feeling they’d been “choked blue” by their party’s leaders, they named themselves the “Blue Dog Coalition” and set about finding a middle ground between the warring edges of both parties. Encompassing a variety of viewpoints, the Blue Dogs are, to this day, engaged in the search for common fiscal ground between the political parties.

1996: Welfare Reform

Despite a bitterly divided government in 1996, Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed into law one of the most sweeping changes to the country’s welfare system. Welfare programs had long been a political dividing line between liberals and conservatives, but by 1996, the threat of intergenerational dependency on government welfare was clear to members of both parties. The Congress, working with the White House, walked a tightrope that made welfare opponents and supporters alternately elated and enraged. Work requirements and child support enforcement were strengthened (a Republican goal), while spending on education and child care was increased (a Democratic goal). Years later, President Clinton wrote that “I was widely criticized by liberals who thought the work requirements too harsh and conservatives who thought the work incentives too generous.” But sometimes, that’s what compromise is.

1997: CHIP

Despite making health care reform a centerpiece of the 1992 Democratic platform, the issue remained an unfulfilled goal for much of the 1990s until Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy stepped into the breach. To address the growing problem of health care for children of the “working poor”—families who couldn’t afford health care coverage on their own but had too much income to qualify for Medicare, Sen. Kennedy proposed legislation to create a federal matching fund for states that helped pay for such care. Sen. Kennedy, as Eastern and liberal a senator as they come, found an unlikely partner across the aisle to co-sponsor his legislation, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, a western conservative whose career would seem to be the polar opposite. With Hatch involved, congressional conservatives were mollified that the program would not derail the quest for a balanced budget and the Hatch-Kennedy bill, signed into law later that year, established the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

2001: No Child Left Behind

Republican President George W. Bush, following up on campaign promise, introduced a blueprint to Congress for a new and sweeping federal slate of standards-based education programs. Using the president’s goals as a draft, two Republicans (Rep. John Boehner and Sen. Judd Gregg) and one Democrat (Rep. George Miller) signed on as co-authors of the joint legislation. But it was when Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, one of his chamber’s most outspoken proponents of education reform and also one the president’s most powerful detractors, lent his name to the bill that it stood a chance to overcome the obstacles of inertia and interest group politicking. While the ultimate effectiveness of what became known as the No Child Left Behind Act is still being measured, its bipartisan birth is already in the history books.

2001: September 11

The terrorists who carried out the massive attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, hoped for death and destruction. The bodies of 3,000-plus Americans can attest to that. But their plans to cower America and weaken our government were thwarted almost from the moment the first hijacked airliner hit. Through the tears of shock and sorrow, American citizens united in a show of unprecedented national resolve. It was an attack on the things we hold most dear—and it shook America out of an almost decade-long political schism. In Congress, planned parliamentary obstacles and committee objections were forgotten as members gathered on the Capitol’s East Steps to sing “God Bless America”—not for the cameras, but for each other. And Wal-Mart, the very model of world-wide retail efficiency, struggled to keep up with the demand for American flags as our citizens felt an urgency not seen in generations to remind each other of what unites us.

2002: The McCain-Feingold Act

For decades, the role of campaign donations in influencing elections was a source of consternation for members of both political parties—each of which, of course, believed it was always the “other guys” who weren’t playing by the spirit of the rules. In such an atmosphere, compounded by a close and bitter presidential campaign in 2000, Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold and Republican Sen. John McCain, both ardent supporters of campaign finance reform, believed they needed to bridge the gap to avoid any reform bill from being seen as the “other guys’” solution. Enacted in 2002, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act—commonly referred to as the McCain-Feingold Act, changed how donations could be used to support political parties and candidates and demanded that television campaign ads clearly identify who paid for them.

2005: The Gang of 14

After the 2004 elections, Senate Republicans found their power enhanced. In the previous congress, Senate Democrats ten times killed President George W. Bush’s nominations of conservative appellate court judges by threatening to filibuster. Now, with a 55-vote majority, Republicans announced the possibility of changing Senate rules to forbid the use of filibuster in considering judicial nominations—a change to the staid and traditional rules of the Senate so unprecedented that Republican Sen. Trent Lott nicknamed it “the nuclear option.” With Democratic leadership unwilling to stop filibustering nominations and Republican leadership threatening to change the rules of debate, it was a group of 14 senators—seven from each side—who stepped in to broker a peace. The so-called “Gang of 14” came to a written agreement: Democrats would not filibuster judicial nominations and Republicans would drop “the nuclear option.” With seven senators from each side part of the deal, it effectively meant that neither party had enough votes to rescind their portion.

2009: Cabinet Selections

In his 2008 campaign for president, Democrat Barack Obama made no secret of his admiration for President Lincoln and his so-called “team of rivals” approach to government. Obama campaigned on a pledge to make his cabinet bipartisan—even “post-partisan”—with an eye toward finding middle ground between political factions. Eventually, President Obama took office with Democratic primary rivals Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton as his Vice President and Secretary of State, respectively, and Republican Rep. Ray LaHood as Secretary of Transportation. And despite being a vocal critic of how the war in Iraq was being run by his Republican predecessors, Obama asked President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, to stay in the job, to maintain continuity in the authority of American forces.

2010: Tax Deal

In order to fulfill his campaign promise to support and promote bipartisanship, President Obama signed a deal to extend the Bush-era tax cuts. The legislation cut taxes for all incomes for two years. While Obama did not agree to all aspects of the deal, he described it as “a package that will protect the middle class, grow our economy, and create jobs for the American people.” The deal angered some Democrats who were opposed to legislation they felt catered to the wealthy. However, bipartisan support for the bill coalesced around additions to the measure, such as an extension for unemployment benefits and preventing a tax increase for the middle class. The president bowed to compromise, stating, “it’s not perfect, but this compromise is an essential step on the road to recovery.”

2012: JOBS Act

In April 2012, President Obama and Congress passed bipartisan legislation known as the “Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act.” The legislation was created to help aid entrepreneurship and small business growth by limiting federal regulations and allowing individuals to invest in new companies. It dramatically increased the use of crowdfunding platforms, which are used to raise money for a variety of causes, such as startups, nonprofit organizations, or personal projects. As stated by former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, “the bipartisan JOBS Act represents an increasingly rare legislative victory in Washington where both sides seized the opportunity to work together, improved the bill, and passed it with strong bipartisan support.”

2013: Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013

Two years after reaching a bipartisan agreement on the debt ceiling, Congress announced a two-year budget agreement prior to the budget conference in December. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 set overall discretionary spending for the 2013 fiscal year at $1.012 trillion, which was about half-way between the proposed budgets of the House and the Senate. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) stated that both sides of the aisle agreed to the proposed legislation after having several extended discussions. During the announcement of the agreement, Ryan and Murray noted that they specifically avoided striking a “grand bargain,” which required the Democrats to agree to reduced entitlement spending in exchange for the Republicans agreeing to higher tax rights. As an alternative, Ryan stated that congressional members strived to “focus on common ground… to get some minimal accomplishments.” The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 was a rare, but promising act of across-the-aisle collaboration in a time of intense gridlock.

2015: Every Student Succeeds Act

In December 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was enacted and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act. The legislation was passed by both the House and the Senate with bipartisan support. ESSA reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that was passed in 1965. This legislation was the first bill since the 1980s to narrow the government’s role in public education specifically for elementary and secondary education. ESSA maintained requirement for standardized testing that were established with No Child Left Behind but gave more control to states in deciding what standards children should be held to in their districts and schools.

2016: 21st Century Cures Act

The debate regarding health care legislation remains a combative issue across the United States. Yet, a sweeping bipartisan agreement occurred around the 21st Century Cures Act, signed into law on December 13, 2016. The bill easily passed both chambers of Congress due to the bipartisan initiatives that were included in it. It strategically provided the National Institutes of Health with resources to expand biomedical research to find cures and treatments for various illnesses and diseases. It allowed for more collaboration among government and private sector researchers and provided for faster drug approval. The legislation supported extensive research funding into studying the human brain, mental and neurological disorders, and regenerative medicine. Funding included $1 billion over two years to combat the opioid crisis, $1.8 billion for former Vice President Joe Biden’s “moonshot legislation” for cancer research, and a ground breaking mental health plan. As stated by President Obama, “this is a reminder of what we can do when we look out for one another.”

2017: John McCain’s Speech after Health Care Vote

During President Trump’s campaign, he promised to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA). After numerous attempts to pass a bill, the House finally approved a repeal measure on a purely party-line vote. In the Senate, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) proved to be the decisive vote in killing the Republican effort to repeal individual and employer mandates from ACA. Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) joined Sen. McCain in voting noto the skinny repeal of ACA. McCain provided rationalization for his vote. In a speech following his decision, he urged his fellow members of Congress to work together, rather than forcefully pushing partisan bills. McCain directly encouraged bipartisanship by emploring his fellow senators “Let’s trust each other… Let’s return to regular order.” We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle.”

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