The spin on Thursday's White House health-care summit is that it marks a return to politics as it should be practiced: the president leading the legislative process, the two parties talking things out, bipartisanship flowering, order restored.
The reality is rather different. The summit is the product of, not the solution to, the problems afflicting our political process. And for all the bipartisan rhetoric, it's probably going to make the partisanship worse.
For months, members of Congress and the punditocracy have complained that the president needs to step up and take a more active role in the health-care-reform process. They, and we, expect it of him. But the president of the United States is not the president of the United States Congress. He can sign or veto a bill, but that's about it. The president's powers within the legislative process are unofficial and informal. He can give a speech or invite congressional leaders over to the White House for a chat, but he has no firm power over the proceedings. Legislating is the legislature's job.
What the president can do, however, is make that job harder. Republicans and Democrats don't agree on much, but they do agree that Washington is increasingly paralyzed … by their inability to agree on much. Last week Evan Bayh got so frustrated that he up and quit. "There is too much partisanship and not enough progress," he lamented. "Too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem solving."
"Too much partisanship and not enough progress" is the sort of airy haiku that passes for profundity in Washington. But why is there so much partisanship and so little progress?
Blame the president, at least in part. According to data gathered by the political scientist Frances Lee, when the president—not this president in particular but any president—decides to take a position on an issue, the chances of a party-line vote skyrocket. If we're talking about health, labor, defense, or immigration policy, the chances that Democrats and Republicans will stay in their separate corners increase by 20 to 30 percent. On foreign aid and international affairs, the likelihood of a party-line vote increases by more than 65 percent.
The most telling statistic comes when the vote is on so-called nonideological issues. These are issues where neither party has an obvious position. Space exploration, for instance. There's no "liberal" take on checking out Mars. But even these issues are 30 percent likelier to end in a party-line vote when the president mentions his preference.
The president is the leader of his party, and the other party can't win unless the public sours on the president. That's not going to happen if the opposition routinely hands him accomplishments. To get an idea of the cost of cooperation, imagine that the guy in the cubicle next to you is not only competing with you for a promotion but might also lose his job if the boss likes your work. Think he's going to sing your praises at the next staff meeting?
Making matters worse is that the president's agenda dominates the congressional calendar far more than it did in previous decades. That's been true across presidents (Congress spent more time considering George H.W. Bush's policies than Ronald Reagan's, even though Reagan was a more commanding political force), and it's been true under both divided and unified governments. Lee estimates that this shift toward the president's agenda accounts for more than 40 percent of the rise in congressional polarization in recent decades.
That is why bipartisanship is unlikely to take root at Thursday's summit. The more that health-care reform is associated with the president, the less likely it is that any Republican will support it. Doing so would be tantamount to throwing the next election.
This leaves us with two choices going forward: either we're going to have to insist that the polarizing president retreats to a more modest role in the legislative process—unlikely, given our evident preference for presidential leadership and our distaste for Congress—or we're going to have to change the process so that the majority can govern successfully even when it's not in the minority's interest to let them do so.
Last week, Bayh suggested bringing the number of votes needed to break a filibuster down from 60 to 55. That's a proposal that could actually do some good, and it's a shame Bayh isn't sticking around to see it through. Conversely, Thursday's summit might make for good TV, but it won't solve our problems.