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Speaker Boehner's strained definition of bipartisanship

May 21, 2012|By Jon Healey
  • House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) speaks at the Peter G. Peterson Foundation's 2012 Fiscal Summit in Washington.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) speaks at the Peter G. Peterson Foundation's… (Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated…)

This post has been corrected, as noted below.

House Republicans like to refer to the legislation they've passed on energy, the environment, taxes and federal spending as a "bipartisan" package of jobs bills. For example, Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a televised interview Sunday: "We've worked with Democrats. Look through all these jobs bills in the Senate, 30 of them, sitting over there, part of our plan for American job creation.  All of them passed with bipartisan support."

But does bipartisan simply mean at least one Democrat signing on? If that were the case, President Obama could claim that the three main legislative accomplishments of his administration -- the 2009 economic stimulus, the 2010 healthcare reform law and the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulation -- were all bipartisan, because at some point at least one Republican in the House or Senate voted "yes."

That's an absurd definition, yet most of the 30 bills cited by Boehner have similarly weak claims to cross-party support. The measures are part of the House Republicans' Plan for America's Job Creators, two of which drew no support at all from Democrats. Those would be the GOP budget proposals for fiscal 2012 and 2013. All but one of the rest attracted, on average, 22 Democratic votes out of a possible 190.

The exception was HR 3012, a bill to adjust the rules for certain types of visas, which passed the House with the backing of 210 Republicans and 179 Democrats. That's clearly a bipartisan effort.

So too were six of the 11 pieces of the jobs package that the Senate endorsed and Obama signed into law. These include bills to eliminate a new tax-withholding requirement on small businesses, to impose countervailing duties on subsidized products from counties with non-market economies and to overhaul patent law. The latter is one of the few measures the House GOP leadership brought to the floor that did not have enough Republican votes to pass.

Boehner could probably affix the bipartisan label to five other pieces in the jobs package that became law despite the opposition of most Democrats, most notably the free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. That's because the measures would have foundered without the backing of Senate Democrats and Obama.

But it strains credulity for Boehner to claim that bills such as HR 3094, which would make it harder for workers to form unions, or HR 10, which would bar the administration from enacting major new regulations without congressional approval, are being stonewalled in the Senate despite "bipartisan support." The vast majority of the 30 bills being held up by Senate Democrats are partisan exercises, not reflections of some broad consensus.

The House is by nature a partisan body, especially so when one party -- Republican or Democrat -- holds a sizable majority. The party with the most seats sets the rules and controls the agenda. And if the House's agenda isn't the same as the Senate's, the House's bills go straight to the back burner. Real bipartisanship has been on display this Congress several times, but only when leaders in the two chambers have the same goal.

A good example is HR 3630, a bill to extend a temporary cut in payroll taxes through 2012. The original House version was a purely Republican approach to the issue, and it garnered all of 10 votes from Democrats -- even though the tax cut was a top priority for the party. The final version, which was a compromise hammered out between the House, the Senate and the White House, attracted support from 147 Democrats and 146 Republicans.

Some readers will no doubt argue that compromise isn't necessarily a good thing, and they've got a point. But it's a prerequisite to calling anything "bipartisan," an adjective that conveys a level of centrism and consensus that simply isn't applicable to the House floor.

[For the Record, 6:54 a.m. May 26: The original version of this post said that HR 3012 would "offer more visas to high-skilled immigrants." The legislation lifts country-by-country caps on certain employment-based visas, but does not increase the total number available.]

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