Whatever else its virtues—and there are few—the farm bill, passed yesterday by the Senate after a drawn out fight in the House, is a good illustration of what’s wrong with our national fetish for bipartisanship.
Passed in both chambers with support from both sides of the aisle, the bill is a classic Washington compromise—lawmakers traded priorities, made deals, and came away with something that everyone could support.
The problem, however, is that the “something” is an awful betrayal of our most vulnerable Americans. This year’s farm bill cuts nearly $9 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—hitting 850,000 households with reduced benefits—while providing tens of billions in subsidies to a small group of wealthy farmers and agricultural conglomerates.
If this is wasteful in normal economic times, then it’s indefensible in the present moment, given the hundreds of thousands of families who rely on food stamps to feed their families and make ends meet.
Yes, the average benefit cut amounts to “just” $90, but for a low-income family of four, that’s a huge reduction in spending power. And when you combine that with the failure to extend emergency unemployment benefits, which affects many of the same households, what you have is a group of people who—for no reason at all—have been pushed from desperation into destitution.
But these awful, counterproductive measures are almost par for the course when it comes to bipartisan policymaking. The last three years of deficit reduction, for instance, were achieved with bipartisan policies (like sequestration) that reduced the deficit at the cost of a slower economy and higher unemployment.
Indeed, it’s noteworthy that calls for bipartisanship are often connected to calls for debt reduction or “grand bargains.” These “difficult choices” wouldn’t be possible without bipartisan cooperation, which provides cover to politicians who want to cut retirement benefits and reduce spending on social services. It’s a way for parties to muddy the water for voters, who have a harder time holding the right lawmakers responsible—if everyone is responsible for a bad idea, then in effect, no one is.
Say what you will about the Affordable Care Act, but its method of passage—a party line vote by Democrats—was helpful to voters. If you didn’t like Obamacare, then you knew who to vote against, and if you liked it, you knew who to support. By contrast, if you want to register your opposition to the farm bill, who do you vote against? The Republicans who pushed the cuts to food stamps, or the Democrats who agreed to them?
More broadly, it’s more than clear that—at this juncture in American politics—the only way to accomplish anything productive is through partisan action. If you want to see policy movement in 2016 or beyond, you should for one party or the other to win full control of government. No, it won’t be “bipartisan,” but what Congress does is more important than how it does it.
All of this is why it’s frustrating to see pundits praise bipartisanship for its own sake. Yes, compromise isn’t a bad thing, and in our system, it’s a necessary part of lawmaking. But let’s stop treating it as inherently virtuous. It’s just one process among many, and often, it leads to bad outcomes.