While legislative harmony is attractive, it is no substitute for critical thinking.
Name a law you really hate. How about the Iraq War resolution or the Patriot Act? Lots of folks despise No Child Left Behind. My own least favorite piece of legislation is the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. It doesn't even lend itself to a catchy acronym: WWTVPRA. Really?
What makes WWTVPRA a real stinker is that it undermines our ability to cope with the influx of tens of thousands of Central American children storming our Southern border.
The law was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Only two House members voted against it.
Lawmakers brag when they are able to pass something on a bipartisan vote as if that is the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. In many cases, the only thing it proves is that Democrats and Republicans working together can be just as destructive as either working alone.
For people who deplore the current nastiness of partisan warfare on Capitol Hill, any bill or amendment that enjoys bipartisan support is greeted like nectar in the desert, and they tend to overlook the possibility that bipartisan authorship might be the only thing good about it. A couple of recent examples suggest this is the case.
Back in 2011, CBS News ran a story that added to the public anger at an already unpopular Congress. CBS reported that members of Congress were fattening their stock portfolios by investing in securities using inside information gathered in their official capacity. President Obama, in his State of the Union Address, challenged Congress to ban the practice.
Congress moved quickly. The authors dubbed their bill, engagingly, the STOCK Act: Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge. It required members of Congress and Capitol Hill staff with high salaries to disclose their assets, liabilities and all financial transactions above $1,000 and post the information online. The purification ritual was soon expanded to include high officials of the executive branch.
The bill zipped through Congress in record time with overwhelming support. President Obama signed the STOCK Act on April 4, 2012. Before the ink was dry, legislative efficiency turned out to be reckless haste.
Because the disclosure requirement covered family members, the measure would have required personal information about children to be posted on the site, an invitation to online predators. Intelligence officials warned that their personal data exposed them to blackmail.
Adding to the clouds over this triumph of bipartisanship was the realization that the practices the STOCK Act sought to ban had been illegal for decades. The legislative "fixes" that followed effectively gutted the STOCK Act.
More recently, Congress' effort to quickly deal with the crisis plaguing the health care system run by the Department of Veterans Affairs promised to be a swift triumph of bipartisan cooperation, bringing together two unlikely sponsors, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Vermont's Independent socialist, and John McCain, R-Ariz.
But congratulations were cut short by a Congressional Budget Office analysis that the Sanders-McCain bill might cost as much as $50 billion annually, a staggering amount that would add to the debt.
This set up a conflict with the House version, which was only slightly cheaper but would be paid for by cuts in other federal programs. All this needs to be worked out in the scant time before the August recess.
The disappearance of the deal-makers who once dominated Congress is sometimes cited as casualty of polarization, but deals that seem to transcend ideological differences can have ugly consequences. For years, food aid for the poor found in annual agriculture bills has encouraged Democrats and Republicans alike to lend support to farm aid that lines the pockets of millionaires.
Bipartisanship can also be the cover for bills that promote foolish behavior such as flood-insurance legislation that induces property owners to rebuild after storms in flood-prone areas.
Compromise is essential in the American political system, and agreement can be made on essential legislation without betraying one's principles. Every year, Democrats and Republicans have to make bipartisan compromises to keep our government working.
But compromise and bipartisanship are no substitute for well-crafted laws.
Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and the author of the upcoming book Is Bipartisanship Dead?
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