Something amazing happened not long ago in a University of Minnesota classroom. Two prominent politicians from different political parties stood together and agreed heartily. Former Vice President Walter Mondale left his recuperation from heart surgery to welcome conservative Republican U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin to a Humphrey School class on reconciling America’s Constitution with the imperative of national security.
On most policies, it would be hard to find common ground for these two, but they agreed on the Constitution’s sacred pact to preserve civil liberties and check government overreaching. They were equally alarmed by Edward Snowden’s revelations that the National Security Agency was intercepting virtually every phone call in the United States to track who was calling whom and for how long — all without meaningful oversight.
For these two, putting the Constitution above party is neither new nor reserved for university lecture halls. Mondale devoted much of his career in the U.S. Senate and the White House to reconciling the twin imperatives of security and accountability; Sensenbrenner has recently teamed up with Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy to press for substantial reforms to regain that balance.
Yet Mondale’s joining a conservative Republican stands out because we’ve become accustomed to rigid partisanship that approaches the famed Hatfield-and-McCoy rivalry. Know a legislator’s party in St. Paul or Washington, D.C., and you’re likely to know how they’ll think and behave.
Party loyalty is not necessarily a bad thing. It helps voters figure out what team to reward or punish. American history is replete with periods when political parties held little sway and dealmaking and back-scratching ruled the roost — “you vote for crop subsidies and I’ll vote for locks and dams.” During these periods of bipartisan “logrolling,” coherent policies that addressed America’s long-term interests took a back seat.
But America now showcases the failings of rigid partisanship and iron-willed disregard for the reality around us. This explains why bipartisanship on urgent issues today is oddly jarring. But we need rebels from each partisan clan who are willing to pick up water buckets to douse the flames of unaccountable government snooping, underperforming schools, and expensive medical care that fails to improve community health — to name a few of our obvious practical challenges.
Partisan Hatfields and McCoys are well-represented in St. Paul, but there are also rebels for practicality that honor the Mondale/Sensenbrenner model. Here are bipartisan teams that I’ve enjoyed watching this legislative session:
• Republican state Rep. Tara Mack has teamed up DFL partner Laurie Halverson to rally colleagues to study Minnesota’s spending on health care for a larger purpose — solving problems. They are delivering a two-pronged message: It is time for Republicans to accept that repeal of Obamacare is no longer an option with nearly 200,000 enrolled through MNsure and many more primed to join. Equally, Democrats must do their part to restore collaboration with Republicans and with health plans and the medical community — a long tradition that formed the bedrock of Minnesota’s leadership in health reform. After all, the feasibility of health reform moving forward depends on restraining costs, reforming the payment of doctors and hospitals to reward performance, and putting a priority on the health of our neighbors in underserved rural and urban communities. That takes collaboration.
• Republican state Rep. Nick Zerwas has teamed up with his DFL colleague Dan Schoen to push reforms that would allow registered nurses with advanced training to serve patients to the full extent of their education and training — as recommended by the prestigious Institute of Medicine. Although well-heeled medical associations resist, this bipartisan duo is pressing ahead to do what is right for patients. Their reforms will enable trained nurse practitioners to decrease shortages in 106 primary care and 53 mental-health settings, a more pressing need in the 46 counties where only nurse practitioners are available and at a time when health reform will increase demand for care and prevention.
• DFL state Sen. Terri Bonoff, a veteran Paul Revere for problem solving, is partnering with another “get the job done” senator, Republican Dave Senjem, to foster apprenticeships in areas where the demand for workers is strong (such as information technology, health sciences and advanced manufacturing). They’ve corralled businesses and higher-education institutions to start the process of building a pipeline for high school students to receive training (with no debt), job experience and an eager employer.
Sound fanciful? Seventy percent of German workers come through the apprentice pipeline, and the Buhler company in Plymouth, Minn., is already at work on this kind of program.
We need more rebels for practicality. They bring vitality to the Legislature and to our communities by ringing the alarm bell when we face real-world problems that both parties would rather avoid. Even when their work fails, they enjoy the quiet satisfaction of working for the benefit of their families and neighbors. Isn’t that the highest mission?
Lawrence Jacobs is director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.