The word “bipartisan” is bandied about quite a bit. According to Wikipedia, “bipartisanship is a political situation, usually in the context of a two-party system, in which opposing political parties find common ground through compromise, in theory.”
Recently the Speaker of the West Virginia House of Delegates Tim Miley, a Democrat representing the 48 District, was interviewed on MetroNews and asked about the recent party switch by 3rd District Delegate Ryan Ferns from Democrat to Republican. As noted by MetroNews, this tightens the split in the state house to 53-47. That’s the narrowest it has ever been.
Miley responded by saying, “Most bills that we pass, down in the House of Delegates, get overwhelming bipartisan support. Are there a handful of bills that break down largely along party lines? Yes, but very few and, even on those bills, some Democrats vote with Republicans, some Republicans vote with Democrats.”
His “political speak” response borders on the disingenuous. Some might interpret his remarks as reaching across the aisle with an olive branch in the spirit of bipartisanship. In reality, his statement ignores and even masks the truth about how the West Virginia Legislature, or any legislature, really, works.
The majority party in the House of Delegates controls which bills are allowed to come up for a vote on the floor through the committee process – a process that is not transparent, nor is it bipartisan. As the majority party, the Democrats choose the Speaker of the House, who then chooses the chairs of the various committees. The committees choose which bills that make it to the floor for a vote, with the chair having the power to kill any bill he or she chooses. There is no recorded roll call on committee votes. In this way, the majority party in the legislature controls the legislative process. Bipartisan, indeed, Mr. Speaker.
When politicians make an appeal for bipartisanship, what I hear is, “support me even though you disagree with me.” With regard to Speaker Miley, it sounds to me like he is conceding that he and his party are losing ground and may be trying to downplay an inexorable trend at work in West Virginia.
In 1998, 63 percent of voters in our state were registered Democrats. By August of this year, that was down to 50.67 percent, a precipitous drop. This is a long-term trend and does not bode well for the party. While Republican registration hasn’t changed much since 1998 — although there has been a small uptick recently — the rise in the ranks of independent and unaffiliated voters has been dramatic and those voters seem to be leaning, well, not toward the Democrats. In the House of Delegates, the current legislature contains more Republicans than at any time since 1928 in both nominal and percentage terms.
Although they vary by state, across the nation the trends are similar. But if you are looking for true bipartisanship among the electorate, it can be found in how we view Congress. According to a poll published in October by The Economist/YouGov.com, Congress’ approval rating has sunk to an all time low of 6 percent. This was put into perspective by a post on ZeroHedge.com, comparing that statistic to the estimate that during the American Revolution approximately 15-20 percent of the colonists remained loyal to King George. If we do the math, we might conclude that King George was around 3 times more popular than Congress is today. Can there be bipartisanship under a monarchy?
Pew Research corroborates these findings, but for a change there is a very encouraging twist. According to a survey it published in April, “Even as public views of the federal government in Washington have fallen to another new low, the public continues to see their state and local governments in a favorable light … 57 percent express a favorable view of their state government – a five-point uptick from last year.”
So there is a silver lining. While Congress and the federal government as a whole are registering all-time lows in opinion polls, public opinion of state government is on the rise. A clue as to the reason for this can be found in the research by Cornell University political scientist Peter Enns. He asserts in a post published by the Washington Post that there has been what he describes as a pronounced conservative shift in each of the 50 states and that the public “is as conservative as it has been in 50 years.” He cites two major factors: a concern that the federal government has grown too powerful and the resurgence in the belief that it is not the role of government to ensure that everyone has a job or a good standard of living.
All of this ties together and provides hope for the future. Polls indicate that Americans are increasingly concerned about the growing power of federal government. As a result, they are turning to their state governments to provide protection from federal overreach. And state governments are responding. From California to Kansas, to Texas to South Carolina, to Vermont and others, state legislation has been passed nullifying certain federal legislation in their respective states. This is nothing short of revolutionary and is the real checks and balances on federal power envisioned by the framers of our Constitution.
This trend accounts for the decrease in the popularity of the Democrats in West Virginia. While other states are passing legislation aimed at curbing the federal government’s overreach, the Democrats in West Virginia are not allowing similar legislation out of committee. This happened to several bills introduced in the last legislative session. Legislators from both parties would do well to heed the voice of the people and act on their concerns regarding the federal government. That would be an act of statesmanship – and it would be a grand example of bipartisanship.
— Elliot Simon writes from Harpers Ferry