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Opinion >  Column

Spin Control: Can ‘bipartisan’ mean whatever a politician says it means?

Voters line up to deposit their ballots into a drop box at the Spokane Library South Hill branch in October 2020.   (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Voters line up to deposit their ballots into a drop box at the Spokane Library South Hill branch in October 2020.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Sometimes in politics, it seems as though we are through the looking glass like Alice, where Humpty Dumpty contends that when he uses a word “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

That’s how I feel when I hear the term “bipartisan legislation,” which seems to mean exactly what the politician speaking wants it to mean.

When I first came to Olympia in the Stone Age – which is to say a little over a decade ago – bipartisan legislation usually meant that it had both Republican and Democratic sponsors or co-sponsors who would lobby their respective caucuses to get votes.

Something that was important to the powers that be in Spokane, such as the City Council, Greater Spokane Inc., a major business or environmental group, could generate bipartisan legislation because the Spokane area had members of both parties in its delegation willing to co-sponsor the bill.

It wouldn’t necessarily have the support of all members of the delegation, but might have some unusual cross-party alliances, such as the proposal to expand the three-member board of commissioners to five members or to build a new medical school for Washington State University at Riverpoint. The first pretty much spanned the political spectrum, from Democrat Marcus Riccelli to Republican Matt Shea. The second united the disparate political minds of Spokane and pitted them against the entrenched political clout of the University of Washington.

Votes for such a bill would come from both parties. Opposition might be confined to one party or might cross party lines.

At some point, party lines in the Legislature and Congress hardened into a narrower range of political thought and bipartisan legislation came to mean bills that passed with Democratic and Republican votes. This is a problem for two reasons.

First, numerically speaking, most legislation passes by large margins because it’s not terribly controversial and nobody makes a big deal about it. Second, if the majority or minority vote included a single member of one party, winners or losers would claim they had bipartisanship on their side.

That was a significant problem when the Senate was run by what was dubbed the Majority Coalition Caucus, in which at first two, and later one, senator elected as a Democrat joined Republicans to provide narrow control of the chamber for a few years. Anything the caucus passed on its own was technically bipartisan legislation. Sort of.

With Congress drawn into warring camps that are surrounded by ideological barricades at least as formidable as the barriers around the U.S. Capitol, President Joe Biden seemed to offer a new definition of bipartisan legislation last week: A law that polls show has support from voters of both parties, such as the new voting rights proposals, is bipartisan regardless of whether elected members of Congress from both parties support it.

This seems to be an unworkable if not dangerous expansion of bipartisanship, considering polling sentiment shifts with each news cycle and would almost certainly show that some members of both parties oppose it, as well as support it.

What’s un-American?

Speaking of the new voting rights legislation, Biden described the newly enacted voting restrictions in Georgia as both “reprehensible” and “un-American.”

That legislation – which was rushed through the Georgia Legislature even faster than legislative public records exemptions were shoved through Washington’s, if you can believe it – includes restrictions on early voting, drop boxes and even handing out food and water to people waiting in line to vote. It would allow the majority party in that state’s Legislature to overturn the certification of county results.

Biden is right that it’s reprehensible, but wrong that it’s un-American.

From the beginning of the republic, the people in power have restricted who could vote as a way of staying in power. States were specifically given the right to determine who could vote. Initially it was white male property owners over 21 in most states. When it became advantageous for a candidate with broader general support like Andrew Jackson, property ownership restrictions were dropped.

After the civil war, former slaves, as long as they were men 21 and older, had the right to vote although many states made that difficult for nearly 100 years. Not until 1920 were all women 21 and older allowed to vote, and restrictions like poll taxes weren’t abolished for another 45 years.

So keeping some people from voting is about as American as the Star-Spangled Banner, apple pie, deep-dish pizza and chop suey. It’s nothing to be proud of, but it is something to recognize and guard against.

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