Christine Todd Whitman

Politics in an Age of Partisanship: A Prescription for Change - July 23, 2009

Christine Todd Whitman
July 23, 2009— Minneapolis, Minnesota
Perspectives on the World speaker series
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Whitman gave this address at Walden University.

Thank you very much, President Kaplan, for that introduction. I am delighted to be here today amongst so many of you and to be able to share a few of my thoughts about what I see happening in the political landscape of this particular century right now, and it’s been going on for a while. I was asked to speak specifically about politics in the age of partisanship and a prescription for change. And I have to admit that as I look at the state of politics today in America today, I don’t think a “prescription,” no matter how strong, is gonna cure the body politic. I think it’s gonna take some major surgery. We have to remove the kind of hyper-partisanship that we see that’s determining so much of the discussion that we have in Washington today—I won’t even say the policy that comes out.

Looking over the political landscape, at this very moment in our history, I’m reminded of some of what [Henry David] Thoreau wrote in his essay on civil disobedience, where he wrote, “How does it become a man to behave towards the American government today?” I answer that he cannot but be disgraced by it. Now, of course, Thoreau was writing about the evil of slavery at the time, but I believe that there are many in America who feel the same way toward their government. They are deeply discouraged by the hyper-partisanship that they see and they want no part of it. They don’t want to be identified with it. And who can blame them? I say that as someone who has spent much of her adult life involved in politics and government—and not just anywhere in the state of New Jersey where politics is, believe me, a contact sport. I understand what it can be like.

My experience in this arena stretches back 40 years. I hate to admit it, but that’s true, actually it goes back further than that, but in real public service it’s 40 years. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I worked in the first Nixon administration down in Washington, and then in the 1990s I served as a—1980s, excuse me—I served as a countywide elected official. In the 1990s I was governor of the state of New Jersey and in the first decade of this century I served under President Bush as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency at the federal level.

And there’s no doubt in my mind that over this period government’s ability to enact sensible policy has been increasingly crippled by the partisanship that almost defies description. And when you talk to people who served 20 years ago and people who are serving today, you will note an enormous difference and they will tell you—those who served earlier—that it’s not the way it was. And as a result of that, the ability of government—unfortunately at every level, not just at the federal level but it’s increasingly coming down to make positive difference in people’s lives—has been really diminished. I mean I went into politics to make a difference, but to make that kind of difference today with the hyper-partisanship that we have is much, much tougher than it should be. To an ever-increasing degree, what passes as smart politics is frustrating the passage of smart policy. Nevertheless, in my experience, we do have examples where this has been overcome in the past, where we’ve seen this hyper-partisanship put aside, and particularly in environment policymaking.

The ongoing battle over global climate change today is the latest example of how partisan politics is determining public policy, but that was not always the case, and it’s important that we remember that as we decide “How do we move forward from where we find ourselves?” I know that those of you—there may be some here whose frame of reference is the last 10 or 15 years—will find it hard to believe that at one point, particularly at the dawn of the modern environmental movement some 40 years ago, Republicans and Democrats had the ability to work together; they actually got things done to enact policy that America so badly needed. It wasn’t easy. Many Republicans were very wary of too much regulation and many Democrats felt that there never could be enough regulation but they understood the urgent need for national action and so they put aside their greatest differences to find those places where they could come together to enact sensible policy, and the policy they enacted is still largely the foundation of what we rely on today to protect our environment. In fact, the vast majority of environmental legislation that still guides America’s approach to environmental protection … [was] passed by a Congress controlled by Democrats and signed into law by a Republican president.

Within months of the first Earth Day back in 1970, [President] Richard Nixon had established the Environmental Protection Agency. That was followed—by the end of the year and during his administration—by the enactment with bipartisan support of landmark laws: The National Environmental Policy Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act. The bipartisanship continued with the subsequent passage under Presidents Ford, Reagan, and the first George Bush of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Toxic Abuse Substance Act, the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, the Superfund legislation, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and the Pollution Prevention Act. Every one of those was enacted by a Congress largely controlled by one party and signed into law by the president of the other party. And those votes were very rarely close votes. They were overwhelmingly bipartisan votes with bipartisan support.

Since 1992, on the other hand, there’s only been one piece of environmental legislation passed, and that was Brownfield’s Reauthorization Act in 2001. Now, let me be very clear: That’s not because we stopped needing to have more legislation to protect our environment. It’s because the political system in Washington had gotten to the point where people just couldn’t come together to make decisions on broad public policy in the way that they needed to.

Let me give you an example of my own experience at EPA of how pervasive this had become. When I first got to Washington—it may surprise you because it certainly did me at the time—I found out that non-road-diesel engines, those backhoes and tractors, posed more of a threat to public health than their on-road cousins, the 16 wheelers and the school buses that you see. And yet, when I got to EPA in 2001, there were virtually no regulations concerning those non-road-diesel engines; no way to control what they were emitting.

So, working with both engine manufacturers and environmental groups, we crafted a proposed regulation to reduce the emission from non-road-diesel engines by better than 90 percent, and everybody bought into it. In fact, when we announced the regulation the National Resources Defense Council [NRDC], one of the largest environmental lobbying groups in Washington, said that it was one of the biggest steps for public health since we’d taken lead out of gasoline some two decades before.

Now, I was delighted as a policymaker, because it showed that when you brought the parties together, you could come to some decisions. You could bring environmentalists together with business, together with the federal government, and come out with good policy. And in this case, it was cleaner air through cleaner emissions of diesel engines. I was also very pleased to be able to hold up the NRDC statement saying what good policy this was as an example of what could happen when we work together. Unfortunately, my euphoria didn’t last very long. It was about three days later that I picked up a copy of the Washington Post and saw a story saying how outraged the other environmental groups were at the NRDC’s support of this particular regulation. And they’d actually—they were worried that the [NRDC’s] statement of support would cripple the environmentalists’ efforts to attack an otherwise imperfect record of the Bush administration.

Now, if you think about the premise of that objection you have to wonder a little bit, because I hardly think [Deputy Chief of Staff] Karl Rove was going to use George Bush’s environmental record as the basis of the 2004 re-election strategy. But, shortly thereafter, I received a letter from the National Resources Defense Council saying, “Please stop using that quote. We’ve looked at the Clean Air Act and we think there might be other things that were equally important.” And we wonder why we can’t get things done together. This was something they [the NRDC] supported; they were at the table. We made changes in order to accommodate their very real and very good suggestions. It made it enormously difficult for me to go to the White House and say, “Would you please meet with these people? Will you talk to them? Will you listen to them?” Because they’d say to me, “Why? We just enacted legislation, or a regulation, not legislation, we just promulgated regulation that does precisely what they want in the way they want it done and they’re still slamming us.” That was politics—that wasn’t policy—and that’s part of what’s [causing] the trouble today.

We’re seeing much of the same thing play out from the opposite perspective. When the House of Representatives recently passed the Obama administration’s cap-and-trade bill, an approach that uses market mechanism to achieve mandatory reductions in carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases, with just eight Republican votes, three of whom were from New Jersey, you would have thought those eight Republicans had committed political treason. They were excoriated by their party and still are being. Now, the House version of cap and trade is far from perfect, don’t get me wrong on that, it has a lot of problems. To name just one, EPA’s analysis of reaching the targets set in that bill would require a 50 percent increase in nuclear energy—that’s the only way they’re gonna meet the budgets or the target, —yet the bill provides for no incentives for more nuclear energy—in fact, it has some provisions that could make it harder to construct nuclear power plants. But the Republican attack on the bill didn’t focus on those deficiencies; they focused on just the concept of cap and trade, calling it “cap and tax.” They didn’t [get] into the broader issues that were brought up by it. The irony is that the whole concept of cap and trade was first introduced almost 20 years ago under a Republican president to successfully reduce acid rain. It was part of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. It had been Republicans. And the further irony is that in the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush had called for a mandatory reduction on carbon emissions, and had he followed that through after he became president, he, too, would have probably proposed a cap-and-trade-type mechanism to reach that goal. I don’t think there’s much question about it, that’s the way he would have gone.

And it’s important to mention that the cap-and-trade system imposed back in 1990 was extraordinarily successful. It worked so well that it reached greater reductions than were called for in the regulation. They got there faster than the regulation required, and at about half the cost that had been anticipated. It was a system that worked. So one has to ask: What was the real basis for the Republican opposition to cap and trade? Was it based on policy, or was it rooted in politics? And if it was based on policy, why didn’t the Republicans offer a counter-proposal? That was something that could be expected. If a political party is sincerely and seriously disagreeing with a policy that’s fine, they have a right and, frankly, an obligation to do that, but they also have an obligation, I believe, to present alternatives. You don’t hear—or I didn’t hear—any alternatives offered by the House of Representatives Republican side.

Now, I have to admit, it’s very hard if you’re in the minority to get your voice heard. That’s not what the press is looking for; that’s not where the focus is. But I was listening pretty carefully for a constructive alternative and I didn’t hear one, and I was looking through everything that I could find. Had I been a member of the House, I probably would have voted for the cap-and-trade bill as it was presented, because we need to start get the discussion going, we need to start taking seriously our responsibility in this area. And it wasn’t a perfect bill, far from it, but it was the beginning. And as for the bill’s many deficiencies, I have great faith and hope that they will —if not all, most [will] be addressed by the Senate and then in conference, and that we will move forward on this in a much more sensible way.

The debate over cap and trade highlights another serious and pressing national issue that remains unaddressed, in large measure because of partisan political objectives. Anybody who spends even a few minutes looking at the wide variety of problems that we face in producing and distributing enough affordable, clean energy will know that we desperately need a national energy policy. We need to take this issue very seriously. Our electric transmission system is a disaster waiting to happen. It’s very much outmoded; it’s old; it’s got serious problems. The consensus about the need for more nuclear power is growing every day, and the need to expand national gas pipelines is also improving that infrastructure couldn’t be clearer.

Unfortunately, however, when it comes to energy in particular, we in America are very good at saying no. We say no to everything right off the bat very, very quickly. And politicians haven’t done anywhere near enough to raise the level of the discussion to the point where people understand that we’ve gotta start saying yes to something. You can’t just say no to everything and expect things to continue the way they have been and expect the economy to grow and people to be able to find jobs. If they don’t do this, if they—the politicians—don’t raise that level of discussion, you have to wonder why. And I believe they’re not raising it because they know that if they do, and if they talk about the policy in the way they need to, their political opponents will turn it back on them in a nanosecond in the next political campaign—that they will find the way to use this against them, because someone’s making a positive suggestion that someone’s gonna object to.

Too many of the solutions have been unwisely politicized. We don’t want to import more foreign oil for a whole host of reasons—some of which are very good and very important—but neither do we want to increase domestic exploration—that’s out of the question as well. We don’t want to use coal because it’s dirty, and yet we’re not investing the way we need to in clean-coal technology. We like natural gas because we have lots of it and it’s relatively clean, but nobody wants a gas pipeline anywhere near them because it might explode. We want to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions while producing electricity, yet we don’t want to talk about nuclear, which, in fact, is the only form of base power that releases no greenhouse gases when it’s producing power. Even wind turbines come under attack because some consider them visual pollutions and they tend to be in flyways, and birds don’t look the same way coming out of a windmill as they did going into it.

So we can find a reason to say no to anything in this country, and yet, we are desperately in need of a bipartisan truce here. We are looking at a 21 percent increase in demand in electricity by 2030 nationwide—far greater in certain pockets of the country. We need to start to enter into a bipartisan truce and start discussing these issues on the merits—not on public opinion polls, not on focus groups, but on what is the right policy for the country. What’s gonna keep us moving forward?

There was great hope in last November’s presidential elections that our new president would usher in an era of post-partisanship. Let me put it this way, something that really brought people together, and I shared that hope. And while President Obama has made some well-publicized public gestures to reach across the aisle, bringing in leaders from both sides, both parties, to meet at the White House, there’s a growing body of evidence that the gestures are not being backed up by the kind of action we need to see in order to truly make a difference.

Under the guise of the need for urgent action, this incredible pressure that’s being put on to act now, we are seeing a disturbing pattern develop between the White House and leadership in Congress. Increasingly the Congressional committees, at the direction of the White House, are releasing bills and amendments many hundreds of pages, thousands of pages in length, in the wee hours of the morning on the very day that a given bill is to be discussed on the floor and to be voted on. The stimulus bill, just take that as an example, was an 1,100-page document released at 11 p.m. the day before it was to be voted on in the House. It called for spending nearly $800 billion. That’s an enormous commitment. Yet, if any member of Congress actually intended to read the bill, he or she would have to have pulled an all-nighter reading 100 pages an hour to get through it before the House went back into session at 9 a.m. the next morning.

I don’t know how many of you have actually read a piece of legislation or proposed legislation. I have—and I’ve read quite a few of them—and I can assure you that it would be physically impossible to stay awake all night—even with many cups of coffee—and to stay engaged in reading that kind of language, much less to absorb it. And even Red Bull wouldn’t do the job for you. It would take far more than that to get through. And then you would just be skimming it. You’d just be reading the words, you wouldn’t be absorbing the intent of the language, and that’s what’s so terribly important. Setting artificially short deadlines for passing bills is not only poor practice for legislating, it also tends to reinforce partisanship. Failing to give a member a chance to actually read, analyze, and consider a bill almost forces a fallback onto partisan positions. “You gotta vote for this. I’m leadership and I’m telling you this is an important bill; you’ve got to vote for it. Trust me, I’ve read it.” It makes it very difficult to build a true bipartisan consensus on a bill that someone’s not even had a chance to read.

The same can be said of the recent cap-and-trade bill legislation. At 3 a.m. on the day the bill was to be voted on—3 a.m.—an over 300-page amendment was released to the members and it was voted on later that day. No one had sufficient time to consider it. No one had really been able—if they’d read the first 1,400 pages, that would be amazing, much less a 310-page amendment that came out at 3 a.m. in the morning. That’s not a good way to do public policy—I don’t care who’s in charge.

And in neither of these cases was there a sound policy reason for forcing these fast votes and setting artificial deadlines. Those deadlines were driven largely, if not entirely, by political concerns, not by policy imperatives. The latest example of this practice was just last week when the House released its version of the administration’s health care reform bill, with the White House setting a deadline of early next month for the passage by the Congress before they wanted to get it to the president’s desk. The president wants it on his desk before the August recess.

For more than 60 years, presidents on both sides of the aisle have been trying to deal with the health care issue. There’s no doubt that we need reform now more than ever. The current system is simply unworkable; it’s failing us in many ways. But that doesn’t mean we should be rushing through a bill with a price tag of $1.5 trillion over the next year that could fundamentally affect more than 15 percent of our total national economy.

I was discouraged to read last week that the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and the president’s chief policy strategist, both said that passing the bill on a strictly partisan basis during the next couple of weeks was more important than reaching a bipartisan consensus. Although it is becoming increasingly clear that the passage of major health care reform before the August recess is unlikely, there’s no evidence that either the White House or the leadership in Congress is much concerned about bipartisan support. Instead, they remain focused on getting the votes that they need, even if it’s only from members of their own party. Period. The end. Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi, in fact, said yesterday that she has the votes to pass the bill, and at the president’s conference last night, he gave no indication that he was looking for any kind of a bipartisan approach to this particular piece of legislation.

In contrast, last month two former [Senate] majority leaders, Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Tom Daschle, released a bipartisan health care proposal of their own. And at a press conference announcing the proposal, they each expressed serious concerns about the wisdom of rushing a bill through along party lines—and this came from both sides of the aisle, Republican and Democrat. I have to admit, I never thought I’d be saying this, I guess I try to be open-minded, but I didn’t think that … [this] soon I’d be agreeing with something that Minnesota’s youngest, newest senator has said, Al Franken. He was quoted in last week’s New Yorker as saying something that I think is very telling. On his second day of the job, he told a room full of supporters that “I did my first vote yesterday. It was a little odd because I discovered something about the Senate, which is that you don’t get as much notice as I would normally want to have to evaluate the value of a program that I’m voting on the funding of.”

What makes Sen. Franken’s observation even more telling is the vote he was talking about was an amendment to eliminate funding for an antiterrorism bus-safety program right here in Minneapolis. As the magazine reported, even though the vote was a so-called no-brainer, Franken was startled that he had less than half an hour to study the bill. I point this out because I think it’s important that we evaluate the level of partisanship in American politics today and to recognize that the methods of promoting partisanship over policy are becoming more and more sophisticated. It’s not quite as in-your-face as we’ve seen it in the past.

Hyper-partisanship today is about much more than the rabid exchanges that have become commonplace on television and radio programs. It’s also about rigging the very process of government to encourage a partisan response and to achieve partisan ends by any means.

It’s probably too much to expect political campaigns to become the centers of thoughtful debates about policy issues. It’s not too much, however, to expect that our governing institutions should adapt that kind of approach to policymaking And, in fact, I think that we need to demand it and demand more of it. So what can we do to lower the partisan fervor that we see in Washington and, frankly, all around us today?

We need to bring it back to the place when you live in a republic—small r—form of government. First, I believe that we as a people have to get more involved in the political process. Walden’s motto is “a higher degree for a higher purpose.” I hope that each of you will use the higher degrees that you are earning here for the higher purpose of demanding more of our politicians, both on the campaign trail and in the halls of government. Many took great pride last year that the turnout in the presidential election was the highest we’ve had since 1968. Even so, that was less than 60 percent of the eligible American voters. We had less than 60 percent voter turnout, with all those lines you saw, all that talk about how great the fervor was in the country—a less than 60 percent voter turnout.

Nearly 100 million Americans who were eligible to vote didn’t bother to go to the polls. They didn’t care about having a say. That should be a cause for shame as well as for serious reconsideration about what we should be doing today in politics. As Thoreau asserted in “[On the Duty of] Civil Disobedience,” to be strictly just, government [sic] must have the sanction and consent of the governed.

When four out of 10 eligible voters don’t vote for president, do we really think the governed are being heard? Are they sanctioning the government? And then you have to look back at whose fault is that, and it’s clearly those who choose not to exercise the franchise.

Next, I would urge the leaders of Congress and the White House to abide by a pledge that President Obama made during the campaign. He promised to post on the Internet the text of every major piece of legislation that he was gonna sign at least five days before he would sign it. That would increase transparency, while giving the public an opportunity to digest these pieces of legislation to get a better understanding of what the true implications were going to be for all of us. Unfortunately, that pledge has been honored more in the breach. In fact, the very first bill that he ever signed never was posted online, and a number of important bills that have come across the president’s desk and that he’s signed have not been posted for anywhere near five days, if at all.

Honoring the pledge might strike some as more symbolic than substantive, but I have to tell you, politics is a lot about symbolism, and that determines a lot of public attitude—it sends a powerful message—and it certainly would in this case, if that time were given to study the bills. Third, I would urge the president and the members of Congress and the majority leaders to remove the artificial deadlines that they have set for passing health care reform and other major pieces of legislation. Health care reform is an idea whose time has come and it’s worth taking some time to study it and to try to anticipate, to the extent possible, those unintended consequences that can have such an enormous impact on the ongoing health of the country as a whole.

If our leaders continue to insist on passing this legislation within the next few days or the next few weeks, they are virtually guaranteeing that it will be passed along party lines. And when that happens, then you have the ability of the other party to slam it only because they didn’t vote for it. And if anything doesn’t work out perfectly—and no major piece of legislation like this will be perfect from the get-go—instead of trying to solve the problems, they’ll be using those problems as a hammer for the next election in order to ensure that they get more of their members seated. It’s one of those things that happens time and time again, and it’s time for us to remember that ours is not a parliamentary system like the British system where the parties really are everything, and when a party has control of the House, they expect their members to vote party line with little input from the minority. Ours is a representative democracy where the rights of the minority are to be respected, not trampled, and we need to keep reminding ourselves of that.

Finally, I would urge the leaders of both political parties to seek to restore to the political arena the sense of dignity and respect for their opponents and for the American people that we have seen in the past. It is often said that in a democracy people get the government that they deserve. I think we deserve better and I think it’s time that we started demanding it.

As I said earlier, I recognize that politics is a contact sport. I’m not expecting it’ll be otherwise. But I do believe very deeply that America has to understand that this has moved beyond the sports pages. We don’t need to talk about it in those same terms—it’s far more serious. We are now looking at something that’s become like the gladiatorial contests of old in the Roman arena where somebody has to die for someone else to win. You’re not satisfied if you just pass a program, you want to make sure you’ve wiped out any ability of the opposition to come back at you at any point and to fight another day. That’s not how politics—healthy politics—is supposed to work.

I found over the course of my career that a person I was battling with over a particular issue might become my ally the next on another issue—and a very important ally. I needed to be able to work with them, to continue to work with them. But when you spend all your time demonizing your opposition, calling them amoral, making them seem as if they don’t care about the future, making it very personal, it’s hard to come together even when you agree on the need to find an agreement. It’s very hard to work with someone that you’ve been demonizing. It doesn’t work. There’s, of course, plenty of blame to go around for how we’ve gotten to where we are and the cause of all this, but the time for paybacks, for recriminations and for getting back for past injuries is really behind us. We have to embrace, in words and in action, the simple goal that, as Americans, we must work together in the pursuit of common goals. We may not agree on how to achieve everything, but we have to find a way to accommodate those disagreements and discover the common ground on which we can all stand.

Such change, of course, will not be easily realized. It’s not going to happen overnight. There is likely no simple prescription to get the job done. Major surgery on the body politic may indeed be required if we’re going to get where we need to be—yet I’m optimistic. We have as a nation overcome far greater challenges when we have to, when we’ve had to. Think back to the 1960s, again when our political system was undergoing enormous upheaval. You had people rioting, you had cities burning, you had colleges being torn down, and yet, on an issue of immense national importance such as the environment, people were able to come together and enact far-reaching laws and regulations that protect us still today.

The unity of purpose was driven from the grassroots up. It crossed party lines, it overcame generational boundaries, and it even bridged the gaps of race and class. The benefits of those efforts are, as I mentioned, are still being realized today. Our air is cleaner, our water purer, our land better-protected than back in 1970. And yet, it was an enormous contentious political time.

The challenges we face today are no less urgent than the environmental perils that we faced 40 years ago. That’s why we need a similar unity of purpose starting at the grassroots and beginning today. We cannot keep putting it off. We need to demand of our politicians, our policymakers, to end the polarizing and paralyzing hyper-partisanship in all its many forms that has infected our politics for far too long. In short, I believe that each of us can make the biggest difference and we can start making it today.

I know you believe that or you wouldn’t be a Walden student. You’re here because you want to make a difference. You’re here because you want to make positive change in your community, however you describe the scope of that community. That’s why I was very pleased to have received this invitation, because I truly believe you are the ones who can and will make the sort of difference that we need to have. We need thoughtful, engaged policy members, people who can speak to both the policymakers and to the people on the street, and tell them that we have got to take charge of our destiny now, and not keep leaving it to others.

I am looking forward to not only answering your questions but listening and hearing your perspective on how we should go forward and what we can do and whether or not you feel this is a real issue that we need to call out. Thank you very much for having invited me here today. Thank you.

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