WASHINGTON, DC – House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (MD) spoke at the Georgetown University Transition Conference at the National Press Club this morning on the myths and realities of bipartisanship and their effect on the economic recovery debate, as well as the importance of following regular order as the 111th Congress works to address the major issues facing our nation. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:
“Every four or eight years, we have a transition to a new Administration. But the transition we marked last month was a special one. Not simply because of the new occupant of the White House; not simply because of a new array of policies; but because it was a transition to a new spirit of seriousness in Washington. Every new President promises a new tone. But with the scope of the challenges we face—from economic crisis, to record debt, to the need for healthcare reform, to global warming—changing the way we do business in Washington is not a matter of pleasing pundits or getting along a little more amicably in our cloakrooms. It is a matter of failure versus success.
“I think we heard something of that new tone on election night, when Barack Obama said that, ‘while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress.’
“When John McCain said that Senator Obama won ‘by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence.’
“And when George Bush called the night’s events ‘a triumph of the American story.’
“What we heard were not routine expressions of humility. What we heard were three men, strong in their beliefs, but understanding that our common challenges cannot be overcome by one party or one set of ideas alone.
“In the weeks and months since, that spirit has faded. ‘What happened to bipartisanship?’ was the headline of a mass e-mail House Republicans sent to the press last week. And inside were a number of articles about President Obama’s speech to last week’s Democratic issues conference. These days, the conventional wisdom is that bipartisanship is dead—the only controversy is who killed it.
“But the problem with these debates, the reason they get so stale so fast, is that ‘bipartisanship’ is one of those words that everyone is for—words like freedom, or security, or happiness—until we get down to the hard work of defining what they mean. And in the debate over the economic recovery and its slog through Congress, a lot of people have exploited that confusion. They’ve created myths of bipartisanship and turned those myths into accusations.
“So I want to be very clear about what that word means. To begin with, bipartisanship does not mean going to the same parties. It does not mean going out for drinks after the gavel goes down in the evening. It does not even mean that we in Congress have to like each other. That would be nice—but frankly, none of that matters to the people who sent us here.
“Nor does bipartisanship mean that, because there are two parties, each party gets to write exactly half of every bill. I think that misconception underlies a lot of Republican anger right now. But that kind of bipartisanship would make elections irrelevant. It would say that, no matter what happens out in America, Washington will stay the same. It would say that the ideals that separate us are far less important than our membership in the club that is Congress. For that reason, it is a deeply elitist idea.
“Bipartisanship does mean, first of all, that we take votes in a spirit of making the best possible policy, not defining ourselves ideologically. Even though Democrats disagreed profoundly with President Bush, we still understood that our differences were outweighed by the need to do the right thing for our country. On intelligence reform, on last winter’s economic stimulus, on the painful decision to approve rescue funds for our banks, and on a host of other issues, Democrats could have been obstructionists. But in each case, the situation was far too important for games. If you’d like, you can contrast that to 1993, when every single Republican in Congress voted against President Clinton’s economic plan, or to the first vote on President Obama’s plan, when every single Republican in the House voted ‘nay’—and then broke out in cheers. In the Senate, Republican Susan Collins said, ‘Some of my colleagues seem determined to oppose the stimulus bill almost no matter what is done.’ That attitude might make for good talk radio—but it makes for bad legislation.
“Ultimately, the keys to bipartisanship are respect, decency, and fair input. What matters is listening attentively to our opponents, responding to them with facts, not emotion, and with arguments, not with talking points. What matters is never questioning the motives of the other side.
“That is the kind of relationship I have tried to build with Roy Blunt, who used to be my counterpart on the Republican side. Roy is very conservative—but he and I are always looking for common ground, and never making the political personal.
“Those values are vital for two reasons. First, if we can practice them here in Washington, they can find their way to the rest of the culture. They can mean fewer political arguments devolving into shouting matches, and more Americans hearing out their neighbors’ beliefs. That was the spirit of unity that resonated so strongly in President Obama’s campaign: It was an understanding that Washington doesn’t just have the power of legislating, but the power of example.
“Second, that kind of bipartisanship is important because it means better substantive results from Congress. Here’s what President Obama said in the speech that supposedly killed bipartisanship: ‘I value the constructive criticism and the healthy debate that’s taking place around this [recovery] package, because that’s the essence, the foundation of American democracy. That’s how the founders set it up. They set it up to make big change hard….No one party, no one individual can simply dictate the terms of the debate. I don’t think any of us have cornered the market on wisdom.’
“In practical terms, that means that we debate bills in committee, that we open them up for amendments and substitutes, and that we vote them up or down. I believe that we could have been more open in the last Congress, and in this Congress, I hope we will be more so—because, in the end, it means better legislation.
“And after the economic recovery plan is passed, the House must return to regular order. More Members, from across the ideological spectrum, need to have input into the work we do—because the result will be better legislation, stronger consensus, and a House that is as open and representative as we pledged it would be.
“I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that this Congress will be the most challenging one I’ve ever served in. It’s not simply because of the scale and scope of our policy challenges. Beneath all of those is a deeper test: standing firm in our principles while hearing out the other side’s; voicing our ideals without raising our voices; changing policy and changing the tone. Those demands will always be in tension, but the voters have called us to meet all of them. At a time like this, the right kind of bipartisanship isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. Our common challenges are too serious for anything else.”