Bi-partisan panels aren’t really bi-partisan

The word compromise is in the air quite a bit. As we approach three years of what may be President Barack Obama’s first term, we have learned that Republicans have very little interest in cooperating with Democrats.

Among the ideas that have been tossed around to deal with deficit and debt problems is the establishment of watchdog bi-partisan panels. Such panels have traditionally been an easy way to kick the can further down the road and to accomplish little.

However, there is now the danger that bi-partisan panels could reach accord and greatly influence policy. I say danger because what used to be bi-partisan panels of Republicans and Democrats have now become panels of Republicans and Republican-lites.

The so-called bi-partisan Gang of Six, which  was active in deficit discussions, consists of three Republicans [Saxby Chambliss (GA), Mike Crapo (ID), and Tom Coburn (OK)] and three Democrats [Kent Conrad (ND), Dick Durbin (IL), and Mark Warner (VA)].

Ratings by the progressive Americans for Democratic Action provides a single standard to measure the leanings of all six senators. The issues that they measure include:

A senator who is very liberal would receive a rating of 100%; one who is very conservative would receive a rating of 0%. Here’s how the six members rate:

These numbers are illustrative, though not necessarily startling. On the surface, the Democrats are eleven percentage points closer than the Republicans to what would be the dividing line between progressive and conservative.

Richard Durbin

However, as frequently is the case, the devil is in the details. Votes on twenty key measures are used to rate the senators. However, these can be misleading. Take health care. There was no up or down vote on the single-payer plan favored by Bernie Sanders and others. There was not even a vote on the proposed public option provision for health care. So while the three Democrats all voted for H.R. 4872. which became the so-called Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, none had to step up to the plate on real liberal provisions, such as single-payer or the public option. Yet the three Republicans all voted ‘No’ on a very milk-toast health care bill, because they saw it as too liberal.

Further evidence of the overall conservative leaning of the Senate is that in 2010, five senators had perfect 100% ratings using the ADA criteria. Nineteen had 0% ratings. In comparison, one year earlier (2009), sixteen senators had 100% ratings, and only one had a 0% rating.

The evidence demonstrates that it’s wise politics for Republicans to suggest bi-partisan panels because they will lean considerably more to the right than the left. Current behavior of Democrats, including the President, indicates that they will not even consider real progressive legislation, so we have no way of knowing how liberal they might be.

Until such point as Democrats show more of a spine in at least addressing progressive issues, we would do well to be very wary of any proposal from either Republicans or Democrats to create bi-partisan commissions.