Free & Clear: August 2014
Like the erroneous report of Mark Twain’s passing, those lamenting the demise of bipartisan cooperation in lawmaking are exaggerated.
By John Hood
Bipartisanship is dead. Everyone says so. Democrats and Republicans are constantly at each other’s throats — in Washington, in Raleigh, in communities across North Carolina. They’re all shouting, but no one is listening. As a result, the very survival of self-government is at stake. It turns out, however, that bipartisanship always seems to be dead.
Go back a dozen years, a hundred years, even thousands of years to the very birth of representative government, and you will find the equivalent of contemporary politicos and journalists complaining about a lack of consensus on big issues and an unwillingness to put the public good above factional or partisan interest. Cicero, the ancient Roman statesman and orator who would eventually be assassinated by a political rival, once warned that politicians who “take counsel for a part of the citizens, and neglect a part, bring into the state an element of the greatest mischief and stir up sedition and discord.” Rather than “act like sailors who quarrel for a place at the helm,” Cicero said, true leaders would “care for the whole body politic.”
I consider Cicero one of the wisest human beings who ever lived. His advice here is sound. But it’s important to remember that, be they ancient or modern, political commentators tend to focus on what is controversial. Much of the day-to-day operation of government is far from partisan or adversarial. Some of it, necessary and even praiseworthy, is pretty dull. And in just about any session of Congress or state legislature, you’ll find examples of bipartisan cooperation on momentous issues.
North Carolina offers several recent examples. One of the most striking occurred in 2011 with the passage of the Judicial Reinvestment Act, which made major changes in how criminals are sentenced and punished. Introduced by two Republican and two Democratic members of the state House, the bill reflected a convergence of opinion on how best to deploy taxpayer money to promote public safety. Conservatives long convinced of the importance of predictable, consistent penalties to deter crime had come to believe that incarceration was overused for some offenders — particularly those who had their probation revoked for reasons other than committing more crimes. Liberals long convinced that community penalties — such as probation or suspended sentences — were fairer than incarceration for many offenders had come to believe that they needed to be more rigorously evaluated and uniformly applied.
This conversation across the ideological divide didn’t originate in North Carolina. Texas led the way years earlier, along with an assortment of evangelical Christians, civil-rights leaders and fiscal conservatives. Using rigorous data collection and analysis, Judicial Reinvestment advocates proposed new ways to structure probation, parole and sentencing systems and persuaded more than a dozen states to adopt some kind of reform.
In North Carolina, the original legislation passed June 15, 2011, with a 50-0 vote in the Senate and 115-1 in the House, in large part due to lobbying by its primary sponsor, Republican Rep. David Guice of Transylvania County. Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue signed the bill a week later. A few months after that, she hired Guice, a former parole officer, to run the state’s community penalties section. When Republican Pat McCrory took office, he elevated Guice to commissioner of the state’s entire correction and juvenile-justice system.
It would be premature to declare the 2011 reforms a clear success. But the early trends are promising. In June, the Kentucky-based Council of State Governments Justice Center spotlighted eight states with marked declines in criminal recidivism in recent years. North Carolina was at the top of the list, with a decrease in its recidivism rate of nearly seven percentage points for convicts released in 2010. Still, only some of the effect could be attributable to parole reforms enacted the following year. Similarly, new admissions to the state’s prisons have plunged 26% since the passage of the Judicial Reinvestment Act. But prison admissions also declined from 2009 to 2011, albeit at a much slower rate (4.5%).
Judicial reform is hardly the only recent instance of bipartisan legislation passing in the General Assembly. In 2013, large majorities of both parties approved McCrory’s proposed changes to vocational education and the distribution of transportation money. In the 2014 session, the governor won bipartisan support for his plan to contract out some functions of the Commerce Department to a new nonprofit organization, a move he says will improve North Carolina’s ability to recruit business.
Whatever you think of the merits of these ideas, their proponents advanced them in a way Cicero would have appreciated. They identified an issue of broad concern and devised a policy response. They looked for common ground among those who otherwise disagree. When encountering opposition, they didn’t question motives. Instead, they made contrary arguments and amended their proposals to win more converts.
For some, calling for bipartisanship is really just code for demanding that the other party capitulate. It rarely works. Most political differences are real, not merely theatrical. We are going to disagree about what government is and what it should do until the end of time. That doesn’t mean policymakers can’t find areas of agreement and act on them. Such constructive bipartisanship remains very much alive, rumors to the contrary notwithstanding.
John Hood is chairman and president of the John Locke Foundation. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.