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How a Congressional Coalition Worked Together without Compromising

"Congress is increasingly polarized." "Nothing gets done on the Hill." "Cooperation doesn't exist between the left and right."

We have all heard these assessments of the state of our lawmaking process and, overall, of American democracy. And not without reason: Just this week, Congress barely dodged a shutdown.

However, while there is indeed much to be discussed about the malaises of US democracy, lack of cooperation between lawmakers, and increased gridlock, there is some behind-the-scenes action going on that challenges the stereotypes that Washington is increasingly polarized, that the lawmaking body is broken, and that cooperation is impossible. This action comes in the form of transpartisanship. Whereas bipartisanship entails compromise, transpartisanship means finding a pre-existing overlap of ideas or ideology and capitalizing on it to enact policy change.

A recent event at New America—the second in a series on transpartisanship— looked at the how a partnership across the left-right divide reshaped advocacy and enabled an unexpected change in the Pentagon defense-spending trajectory through the automatic federal budget cuts that have come to be known as sequester.

John Bennett is the author of the case study on this unlikely political alliance. What became apparent to him while working on this paper, and what he considered to be the main takeaway from the whole process, was that the coalition saw an opportunity and quickly mobilized. Bennett explained that “what was different about the coalition and what made it effective was its willingness to put aside issues that they did not agree on.” By doing that, the coalition was able to seize the opportunity, focusing on how much defense spending could be cut without hurting national security.

Heather Hurlburt, director of the New Models of Policy Change at New America, asked a question that most of us ask ourselves when we hear about transpartisan cooperation: If the picture painted by the media—one in which two parties of the government cannot or will not engage in a relationship that fosters cooperation—is accurate, how did the Pentagon topline fall so much? Is there an architecture—a structure or a timeline—for the relationships that are allowing behind-the-scenes conversations to take place?

Bennett explained that yes, there is a lot of concerted cooperation going on, especially at the committee level. Members of Congress are asking the same questions and talking about the "work that is going on across the aisle." He emphasized the uniqueness of this attitude in a political system that has accomplished so little lately, with some lawmakers and advocates approaching issues with preconceived notions about people on the other side. Acknowledging that "You're not going to agree on everything” is what he identified as being key to breaking down walls that existed between the two sides on the issue. Bennett added that another crucial element of the campaign’s success was the coalition’s ability to educate Members of Congress, helping them explain to their constituents that cuts could happen without hurting defense.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, noted that this seemingly unlikely cooperation was, in fact, the result of a belief shared by both right and left: that the government should have a certain role, and that the expansion of that role comes at the cost of Americans’ civil liberties. For Norquist, members of the coalition are in “complete ideological agreement on what the relationship between the individual and the government should be.” Principled conservatives and principled liberals are very comfortable with this transpartisan advocacy process because they are not compromising. The coalition’s goals are the things that they both wanted to do in the first place.

As an advocate who was part of the coalition from the get-go, Darcy Scott Martin, director of the Pentagon Budget Campaign, explained that the the transpartisan effort to cut the Pentagon’s topline was made possible by a dynamic shift within the Republican Party, in which “a lot of years of war in Iraq and a lot of years of unsuccessful military spending” were indicators that the approach to defense spending needed to change.

Despite the partial success of this coalition, there remain many hurdles that not only this particular coalition, but also other transpartisan efforts have to overcome. For Martin, one of the main ones is language and the words that advocates choose to use around people with different ideologies. In her opinion, if both sides keep speaking their own self-promoting language to their own distinct audiences, they continue to carry their ideological baggage, articulating themselves in such a way that they will not be understood by other, different groups.

Another challenge for this particular coalition, according to Martin, is the role that the Overseas Contingency Operations fund (money that can be added outside the budgetary process) will play in the near future. The OCO can be used by the Pentagon in a freer, more discretionary way, and is not always transparent. For Martin, this fund is antagonistic to the core principles of anyone who wants to cut spending, and is something to which anyone who is interested in maintaining the success of the coalition should be paying close attention.

What else should the coalition watch if it wants to keep and use its transpartisan momentum? Norquist emphasized the importance of transparency in the budgeting and spending process. He believes that a Pentagon audit would show lawmakers in the appropriations committees where money is being wasted, and where there is room for cuts without sacrificing national security.

Bennett, for his part, suggested that those interested in how this tug-of-war between defense hawks and deficit hawks will play out should be looking at the Senate and its loudest proponents of even more muscular defense spending. While the Senate might drive a budget deal that raises the spending caps, its success will depend on how much Mitch McConnell can get through the Senate and how much Kevin McCarthy, should he become the new House Speaker, is willing to get through the House. In addition, one cannot ignore the role that President Obama will play in this—he can, after all, use his veto power, stopping the OCO bill.

Avoiding a government shutdown this past week meant that Congress had to pass a Continuing Resolution—a seemingly unavoidable agreement to fund the government at the exact same levels as last year, and one with which nobody is satisfied. There is a feeling that progress has stalled. Martin, however, is optimistic, and explained that being in an atmosphere in which there is a proposed effort on the side of the Pentagon to think about how to spend more responsibly on national defense is an indicator of success in and of itself. For Norquist, too, the spending caps have forced people to think about ways to spend money more wisely.

And if this coalition has left us with some success today, where will it leave us in the near future? Martin believes there is going to be a continued conversation on international engagement issues, particularly in the Middle East, and on the impact that engagement will have on the defense budget. Norquist believes that the push for transparency will only get stronger, leading to a better assessment of spending. For Bennett, the spending caps are here to stay, at least for the next few years, and are now something that, whether or not they like it, defense hawks will have to grow accustomed to dealing with. But there have certainly been worse things said of the two parties in Congress than, “They learned how to work with each other.”


Chayenne Polimédio is the deputy director of the Political Reform program at New America. She coordinates all aspects of the program’s work, and manages an independent portfolio of research and writing on issues  related to representation and participation, as well as about Brazilian politics and identity. Chayenne has written for Vox, Quartz, the Washington Monthly, and other publications.