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Commentary: Bipartisanship isn’t dead, but it's not in good health either

The following is a commentary for the Opinion page submitted to the newspaper. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Echo Press.

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By Lee H. Hamilton, Bloomington, Indiana

Having just watched a Supreme Court nominee supported by a comfortable majority of Americans draw just three Republican votes in the Senate, you could be forgiven for thinking bipartisanship in Congress is a thing of the past.

But if you look carefully, there are plenty of signs that bipartisanship is still possible in Washington. President Biden recently signed a bill reforming the Postal Service, which drew strong support from both parties in Congress. The same happened with a measure that keeps companies and universities from shielding themselves against lawsuits for sexual harassment.

There are other examples, as well, but you’ll notice something about them: They’re not focused on hot-button issues like voting rights or gun control or immigration. This is in no small part because in the Senate, a measure effectively needs 60 votes to pass — which means neither party can get bills approved without members of the other party.

This is often intensely frustrating to partisans of whichever party is in power. Yet I’d argue it’s not a bad thing. In fact, the need for bipartisanship is pretty much baked into our system.

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True, there are some state legislatures where party-line lawmaking can produce actual laws. But at the national level, intense polarization yields legislative deadlock. And at both the federal and state levels, it produces laws with dubious futures.

By requiring lawmakers to compromise and work with their political adversaries, bipartisanship often produces better, longer-lasting legislation. It helps ensure that a proposed law will take into account a broad range of views, produces wider acceptance both within a legislative body and in the public at large, and perhaps most important, means that the legislation has a chance of surviving the next change in power.

To put it simply, if you’re interested in scoring points with the base, then bipartisanship doesn’t matter. If you want to have a beneficial and lasting impact on American life, it matters a great deal.

It may be tempting to throw up one’s hands in despair at the displays of highly partisan behavior all around us. But as a voter, there’s something you can do about it. Notice all the instances in which lawmakers work across the aisle to secure some piece of legislation. Pay attention to who does the heavy lifting and who stands in the way. Then support the people who recognize that bipartisanship is the route to effective legislating.

Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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