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Congressional fighting good for the system


'Tis the season of peace on earth and good will toward men.

That's true even in Washington, at least officially.

The change in control of both houses of Congress has led to promises of change in congressional conduct as well. These promises go far beyond ending inappropriate e-mails to congressional pages and getting caught with your hands in a lobbyist-stocked cookie jar.

These promises go to the heart of human nature, at least that of the political species. Acrimony will be banished, and human kindness shall reign. We are about to enter a glorious era of productive bipartisanship.

While I don't want to play the Grinch or Scrooge, I can't help but be a bit skeptical of these claims. The emphasis on a return to civility is more than welcome, but an era of pure bipartisanship might not be in the best interests of the nation.

That isn't to say that bipartisanship doesn't have a place in Washington. Consider the question of the federal terrorism insurance backstop. Extending the backstop beyond its scheduled Dec. 31, 2007, expiration date—or making some form of it permanent—enjoys the support of a wide majorities of lawmakers from both parties. Doing so is opposed by the Consumer Federation of America on the left, and the administration aided by a handful of Republican lawmakers and The Wall Street Journal editorial board on the right.

Relatively few major issues cross party lines so readily as terrorism insurance. That kind of broad support, other than in times of national emergency, is often reserved for the naming of post offices and the recognition of hitherto unsung patriots whose neighborhood virtue made the country a better place.

The truth is, we need partisanship. Without it, it would be a lot harder to keep the other side honest. Of course, partisanship in and of itself isn't enough to keep people honest. Even with the sharp-edged partisanship of the past couple of Congresses—not to mention what erupted time and again during the Democrats' 40-year unbroken hold on the House—malefactors still got away with quite spectacular misdeeds.

There has to be a watchdog; in the political arena, the guys who want your job perform that function very well. One-party government, which is the case when there's truly only one party involved or when two or more parties basically scratch each others' backs and look the other way when something foul's afoot, can't do that.

Partisanship has gotten a deservedly bad rap of late because it has been played out in a particularly nasty way. Partisanship doesn't mean that you have to paint the guy from the other party as some sort of spawn of Satan for disagreeing with you on the question of, say, whether federal subsidies should be provided to kumquat growers who just happen to be major contributors to your re-election campaign.

After all, one enduring bit of Washington folklore concerns how the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill and President Ronald Reagan could fight political battles during the day and then socialize quite pleasantly during the evening. They remained partisans, but they did not go out of their way to demonize each another.

Such civility can't—and shouldn't—paper over real political differences. That's why we have political parties. There has to be a vehicle for presenting policy proposals to the public and then to fight for those proposals.

But the fights can and should be conducted in a civil manner. There's nothing Pollyannaish about that, either. Partisanship we need—extended rancor we don't. It's a bit of the Christmas spirit this town could use all year long.

Senior Editor Mark A. Hofmann can be reached at: