Beware Bipartisanship

Now that we know the outcome of the Florida recount, it's time to look forward to the 107th Congress. When it convenes next year, it will be one of the most closely divided in our history, and we already are hearing much about "bipartisanship" from the Democrats and Republicans. What shall we make of it?

I cannot help but recall journalist William Greider's excellent 1992 book, Who Will Tell the People? (Simon and Schuster). The facts reported and the stories related by Greider may be dated for someone reading it today, but the gist of the book remains perfectly contemporary: our democracy increasingly looks like a sham perpetrated by both parties on the American people. Under cover of bipartisanship, "symbolic legislation is passed with fanfare," as Greider writes, but is seldom enforced to the benefit of the nation. Great goals are announced for health care, education or campaign finance reform, but they are seldom met.

Bipartisanship is supposed to fix problems and break gridlock (let us pause for a moment to guffaw), but today the bipartisan ship of state is a Titanic proposition wherein the party of FDR daily becomes evermore like its Republican counterpart in its reliance upon and catering to corporate donors. This bipartisanship gives cover to a legislative culture in which laws intended to serve the public are enforced randomly, if at all.

Greider quoted Richard Fortuna, then a staff aide on the House Public Works Committee, who said, "The worst situation is not the absence of laws, but the presence of laws in name only. Right now, we have a lot of laws in name only."

An example offered by Greider is the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It was passed with bipartisan majorities and President George H. W. Bush's support. But Greider quoted Mary Johnson, then editor of The Disability Rag, who said that federal agencies were not even observing the terms of the disability laws superceded by the ADA. "One of the best ways to kill a civil rights concept is to pass a law and not enforce it," she told the author.

Another example: Laws enacted to protect people from toxic environmental pollutants, which are seldom enforced, thanks in part to corporate hamstringing of environmental agencies with endless legal wrangling and tangling.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 promised safety for people living near factories emitting toxic substances. When Greider was researching his book in 1990 -- yes, twenty years later -- the toxic pollutants were still not being regulated. Corporate lawyers argued in court for years over what constituted the "ample margin of safety" promised by the law. In all that time, Greider pointed out, Congress did nothing to resolve the issue.

Members of Congress are wily enough to find ways around actually following through on any legislation that might anger the corporations that contribute to their campaigns. Greider wrote: "For most members of Congress, the legislative process represents a chance to please public opinion by voting for high-minded legislation while protecting corporate balance sheets or other interests by acceding to the legislation's deceptive details."

The pharmaceutical companies are a great example. How likely is it that the new bipartisan Congress will follow through on its grand pronouncements for improved access to prescription drugs and better health care? In the recent election cycle the industry front group Citizens for Better Medicare ran a $76 million issue campaign, prompting historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, on PBS's "NewsHour" show, to call it the real "third party" in the race.

Bill Greider noted that the whole political community, including the media, has come to accept the fact that new laws "lack the precision and capacity to deliver on the intentions" of their drafters, and "are really no more than gestures of good intent -- grand declarations of what would be nice to accomplish someday."

The bipartisanship we will witness in the 107th Congress -- hot on the heels of the most expensive campaign in history -- will likely enhance that reality rather than change it.

Who Will Tell the People?, indeed.

Carla Binion is a freelance writer whose essays have been published by American Politics Journal and Online Journal.

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