08/02/2012 10:40 am ET Updated Oct 02, 2012

A Call for Bipartisanship

You have to wonder what a political icon like Everett Dirksen would say about newcomer Richard Mourdock's notion of governance.

Mourdock, who recently defeated Indiana senator Richard Lugar in the Republican primary, opined that "bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view."

Dirksen, the pragmatic Republican from downstate Pekin who was instrumental in writing and passing landmark civil rights legislation championed by a Democratic president, saw the issue differently.

"I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times," said Dirksen.

Like countless Republicans and Democrats before and after him, Dirksen realized that partisanship -- to the exclusion of all else -- is a prescription for paralysis.

After all, it was bipartisanship -- or flexibility, as Dirksen would call it -- that saved Social Security in the 1980s and enacted both welfare reform and a sweeping free trade agreement in the 1990s.

More recently, Democrats and Republicans came together to pass a Republican president's No Child Left Behind Act, sweeping tax cuts and a financial bailout at the height of the economic crisis in 2008.

You don't have to agree with any of those bills to appreciate the fact that principled men and women put aside labels and party pressure -- and maybe their own political self-interests -- to do something for the greater good.

But as Mr. Mourdock's comment eerily suggests, that sort of pragmatism has given way to an ideological rigidity aimed at thwarting any kind of meaningful progress.

"My way or the highway" seems to be the flavor of governance currently in vogue. And it's a flavor that is unpalatable to many politicians.

"Back to my dad's time or Ronald Reagan's time they got a lot of stuff done with a lot of bipartisan support that right now would be difficult to imagine happening," former Florida governor Jeb Bush said recently.

It would be difficult to imagine, because it rarely happens. Grandstanding occurs far more frequently than compromise.

That may be good for cable news and bloggers. But for the rest of the people? Not so much.

This isn't to say we should abandon the party system or stop fighting for the values we believe in. We have our differences, and there is nothing wrong with lively debate. Passionately defending one's principles is crucial. Representing your district is fundamental. But refusing to entertain the common ground -- with no other cost but giving the other guy a political "win" -- is a disservice.

I managed to recruit one co-sponsor for a bill to shed more light on members' financial dealings and so felt utterly triumphant when 37 other members from both sides of the aisle joined me in offering a budget substitute that mirrored the Simpson-Bowles plan. And my legislation to provide taxpayers with a receipt detailing how their money is spent even garnered support during committee from two of my Republican colleagues!

But these victories are rare in a Congress that is going to be remembered for a series of high-profile meltdowns that have jeopardized the fiscal health of this country and tested the patience of voters.

The standoff that brought the government to the brink of shutdown; the calamitous bickering over raising the debt ceiling; the irrational attempts to gut willy-nilly the agencies that protect our health and welfare -- all belong in the great bucket list of congressional craziness.

And no need to worry about jobs or infrastructure when you can vote (again) to repeal health insurance reform.

This vitriol infects almost every aspect of what we do. In Congressional hearings, harangue routinely trumps dialogue.

There's not going be a lot of meaningful information gleaned from a hearing named: "Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience." And, of course, no women were allowed to testify. And why should they? It was only about reproductive rights.

Despite the wackiness, I hold out hope. This is an institution with a history of fist fights and the occasional duel between members. By that measure, at least, we're doing better.

We can't allow ourselves to descend down the rabbit hole of unbridled partisanship for partisan sake. The complex problems confronting this country require thoughtful responses from both parties -- not reflexive dogma that appeases the rowdy and unreasonable few.

These times require us to channel our inner Everett and find the flexibility to solve this nation's problems. The stakes are too high not to end the rancor, and end it now.