Saturday, October 4, 2008

Could financial crisis signal end of two-party system?

Originally published 10/4/08)

PBS personality Gwen Ifill asked vice presidential nominees Joe Biden and Sarah Palin during their debate Thursday whether this week’s chaos on Capitol Hill over the financial industry bailout plan revealed the best or worst of Washington.

It was both.

This week in Washington was simply remarkable: Fascinating, thrilling and wonderfully messy.

It was a beautiful chaos that pervaded the House vote on Monday: Lawmakers scurrying around, furiously negotiating with the fate of the bill in the balance.

So much of what happens in Washington is scripted and calculated. As independence and true debate among lawmakers has become all but extinct, the legislative process has become a bad reality show. It was so refreshing to see lawmakers operating in an uncontrolled, unpredictable environment.

We saw the worst Washington has to offer in the lead-up to the crisis -– when neither Democrats nor Republicans were successful in enacting the necessary regulation to require common sense in lending when mortgage giants ignored it –- and in the finger-pointing that went on in the hours following the bill’s stunning rejection in the House on Monday.

Republican leaders blamed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for a partisan speech she gave in the moments leading up to the vote. But barely two days later, they were working with her to try to find 12 votes to ensure the bill’s passage.

Meanwhile, the Senate cobbled together a compromise that united Democrats and Republicans – not by party, but on principle.

And the two-party system splintered. Blue Dog Democrats in the House joined forces with Senate Republicans like Richard Shelby; the former out of concern for the deficit, the latter out of concern for the free market. Pelosi and her Republican nemesis, Minority Leader John Boehner, pleaded together with their members for support. Liberal senators acceded to conservative-style tax cuts to placate shaky House Republicans.

Fellow Americans, we have seen this week a glimpse of the impact a multi-party political system would have on Capitol Hill.

I loved it.

Lay aside the contentious nature of the bill itself. Think about the bartering, the hard compromise, the genuine coalition-building that has had to take place to move it.

Over the last week, the best of Washington was revealed as our elected officials had to talk with each other, consider all sides, make the best of all the ideas and work together to find a solution to a problem facing our nation.

This week required our elected officials to actually do their jobs.

Republicans and Democrats spent the first part of the week pointing fingers at each other. They spent the second half of the week learning – some for the first time – how to work together.

Come to find out, there’s a lot more to them than the D or R behind their names.

If any good can come of this “toxic mess” in which we now find our economy, perhaps it will be the end of the two-party political system and the stranglehold it has on our policymaking process.

Maybe then, we’ll know the best of Washington when we see it.

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