Can the Center Hold?

Stimson Spotlight

Can the Center Hold?

By William Reinsch

This is not a new topic. It comes up in the commentariat every few years, but the recent health care debacle makes it timely once again — and, as always in this column, relevant to trade. The topic is how to run Congress — from the party or from the center.

Running it from the party has in recent years become an article of faith on both sides of the aisle. It is best typified by the “Hastert Rule” which held that the only bills coming to the floor would be those supported by a majority of the majority, in his case the Republicans. But the Democrats are hardly innocent. If you look at Nancy Pelosi’s time as Speaker, you see essentially the same approach. The Senate is more complicated because individual senators have more opportunities to throw sand in the gears, and the party margins are usually narrower, as is the case at present, but even there, both Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell seem to have caught the House disease, and each attempted to run the Senate on the basis of single party control to the extent they could get away with it. 

Single party control, of course, has not meant the disappearance of bipartisan rhetoric. You hear it every day in both houses from both sides of the aisle. My eyes roll every time I hear the phrase “working together in a bipartisan way” (apparently, they have to say it that way because there is no adverb form of ‘bipartisan’’  ‘bipartisanly’ does not resonate). The rhetoric certainly sounds good, albeit more than a bit tiresome, but one is hard-pressed to find examples of legislation that was actually developed that way. Bills coming to the floor these days either pass nearly unanimously because they are not controversial or on a virtually party line vote. Indeed, the Republicans’ recent insistence on using the reconciliation process to consider health care and tax reform was precisely to avoid bipartisanship, which would otherwise have been necessary, at least in the Senate, because of the opportunity to filibuster. That hasn’t turned out so well on health care so far, but we’ll see if they fare better on tax reform. My guess is they will not. The only example of serious tax reform in the last 50 years was in 1986, and that was explicitly a bipartisan effort.

In contrast, running the institutions from the center has advantages but also political downsides. Functionally, it means each party not only has to be willing to work together in good faith, but both have to be ready to throw their extreme members under the bus in order to reach an agreement. That can produce hefty majorities at the time, but it leaves unhappy progressives and Freedom Caucus members to attack and undermine their respective leaderships and to try to drum up primary opponents against the centrists who deviated from the perceived orthodoxy. Of course, ironically, that is happening anyway as we saw in the House health care debate and the Senate Gorsuch nomination debate where each party’s minority is pulling away from the center rather than towards it. 

The sad reality these days is that partisanship is the path of least resistance. There are a lot of reasons for that, beginning with gerrymandered Congressional districts, but there is no space here to go into that much more complex subject. There is space, however, to explain what this means for trade.

It turns out that trade has always been an issue where the center takes on the extremes, so it is not only appropriate but necessary to pursue Congressional action on trade agreements from the center rather than as the property of one party or the other. This is so because trade issues tend to have strong regional differentiations. If you represent the West Coast, for example, you are probably pro-trade regardless of party because of the direct positive impact trade has had there. If you represent Ohio, Pennsylvania, or Michigan, you probably are a trade skeptic, again regardless of your party, because those are the states most impacted negatively by imports. The result is that trade does not strictly follow party lines. Where you are from is more important than the ‘R’ or ‘D’ after your name. In other words, where you stand depends on where you sit — or at least where you sat before you got elected.

That makes trade a good place to experiment with getting back to bipartisanship — from either the pro-trade or trade skeptic perspective — because building a majority of either side in a single party is highly unlikely.

Now, if we just had some trade legislation or a trade agreement where we could test that theory.
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William Reinsch is a Distinguished Fellow with the Stimson Center, where he works principally with the Center’s Trade21 initiative

Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol