Americans have repeatedly told pollsters about their exhaustion over partisan politics. Seven in 10 independents clamor for compromise over confrontation. Battle-scarred politicians, such as Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who cultivate thicker skins than armadillos, have cited the toxic environment on the Hill as a reason for retiring. Amid the overheated rhetoric, apocalyptic warnings and well-financed attacks, however, are tales of political cooperation, both small and large. Here is one in a series.
National stalemates and party tantrums get the headlines. Drill down, though, and you'll see many states and cities working through fractious issues. Despite million-dollar deficits and divisive social issues, there are daily signs of political cooperation in the trenches.
A cooperative Columbus, a nonpartisan Nebraska and Idaho
So which region should get kudos for being the most bipartisan? Time magazine, for instance, recently honed in on a popular political destination. "If you ever wonder what kind of economic development might be accomplished in this country with more bipartisan cooperation," Time says, "consider Columbus, Ohio." Behind the accomplishments in "streamlining government and investing public money in the right things" has been a cost-cutting Democratic mayor teaming with mostly conservative business leaders.
Or you can look at the state level and measure bipartisanship by how many joint-sponsored bills get passed. Karen Suhaka—founder of BillTrack50, which tracks legislative bills—took a mathematical crack at it by looking at all 2011-2012 bipartisan-sponsored bills passed.
By that metric, Nebraska and Idaho tie for first, although Suhaka's blog notes that Nebraska legislators are nonpartisan by law, and Idaho bills are mostly sponsored by committee. Iowa comes in next, followed by Kansas and Alaska. "There are significant intangibles, like the overall tenor of conversation, what would be interesting to compare across states," Suhaka tells Yahoo News.
Or you can look at divided states—about seven have political splits in their legislative chambers as well as their gubernatorial seat—and see which have managed to pass major reform. Alan Rosenthal, Rutgers professor of public policy and the author of "The Best Job in Politics: Exploring How Governors Succeed as Policy Leaders" put his vote on New Jersey—and he's not just saying that because he lives there.
New Jersey "doesn't look bipartisan," Rosenthal says to Yahoo News. "And if you listen to the governor, Christie, it doesn't sound bipartisan. And if you listen to the Democrats, they don't sound bipartisan." But despite the split and the rhetoric, lawmakers compromised on three major bills: property tax caps, public employee pension reform, and tenure reform for teachers.
"You have an example there of a state with a divided government—Republican governor, Democratic legislature—that managed, quite unlike Congress, to get together on things," Rosenthal points out. New Jersey's record is even better than, say, California's, which, despite its Democratic majority, has been hobbled by difficult requirements to pass budgets.
The growth—and end—of partisanship?
Of course, states in general can afford to be politically cooperative, compared with national politics in Washington, D.C., which operates under 24/7 media scrutiny in an ideologically diverse and extremely competitive climate that has seen a seesaw shift in party dominance in the last three elections.
State politics, though, isn't as inclusive as it used to be: In the past, the majority party made an effort to seek bipartisanship instead of just the minimum number of votes to get its way. Rosenthal attributes the shift, which has filtered down to voters, to campaigning changes.
"For the last 25, 30 years, in at least 75 out of 99 legislative chambers, the campaigns are run by leadership PACs or legislative party packs. They're run from inside the legislature," Rosenthal explains. "Campaign and governance have not become confused, but they have become fused."
Here's a positive prediction: Rosenthal thinks the rancorous climate in D.C. will ease off in 2013. "Whoever's elected, you're not going to have the same gridlock you've had for the past two years," he says.