The Effective Partisans

January 2016
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City

Last fall, in his first speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate -- a controlled rant that was equal parts astonishing and inspiring -- Republican Ben Sasse of Nebraska blasted his colleagues over the pointless partisanship that has paralyzed Congress. “The people despise us all,” Sasse told his colleagues. With Congress’s approval rating running at about 9 percent, that wasn’t much of an exaggeration.

Unfortunately, the disease in Washington is getting worse, and in recent years it has begun to infect state and local government. In this issue of Governing, as we do every January, we have outlined what we think are the most important issues states will face in the coming year. Given that these “issues to watch” are largely contested along partisan lines, it’s hard to be optimistic that we’ll see a lot of progress on them.

But in the areas where we do see progress, it will be through the practice of what I think of as “effective partisanship” by legislative leaders. Partisanship itself isn’t the problem. Real leaders have to have strong principles and a clear, coherent political philosophy. But they recognize that those on the other side of the aisle have those traits as well. They build cohesion among the folks on their side and bargain in good faith with the opposition.

I started thinking about this when we chose Kentucky Republican Senate President Robert Stivers as a 2015 Governing Public Official of the Year. Lawmakers in Kentucky -- with a Republican Senate, a Democratic House and a Democratic governor -- accomplished a lot in the past couple years, producing legislation dealing with issues such as job training, the heroin epidemic and gasoline taxes. That was due in large part to Stivers, who was instrumental in forging legislative compromises.

Another effective partisan is Democrat Mike Gronstal, Iowa’s Senate majority leader, who is profiled by Alan Greenblatt in this issue. Over his long career as a legislative leader, Gronstal has kept his caucus together while dealing with Republicans in ways that, in the words of a former Republican House speaker, enabled the legislature to find “a way to get things done.”

In short, what we need is partisanship without polarization. As Sasse of Nebraska put it in his speech, “We do not need more compromising of principles. We need clearer articulation and understanding of competing principles  so that we can actually make things work better.” A Congress -- or a state legislature -- that actually works will not be despised by its citizens.