Notes from the President: Bipartisanship (Spring 2011 Trust Magazine)

By Rebecca W. Rimel
President and Chief Executive Officer

Message from the President, Trust, Summer 2011:

When our Founding Fathers gathered in Philadelphia during the hot summer of 1787, it was a meeting of men with divergent opinions and competing interests who nonetheless believed they held a shared purpose to forge a great nation. They argued and they compromised, and they produced one of history’s most remarkable documents, the Constitution of the United States.

Our past is filled with the accomplishments of leaders who followed the example of that Philadelphia convention and found common ground in addressing major issues facing our country and the world. They include the historic tradition of congressional support for presidents in the conduct of foreign policy especially during times of war, the broad coalition that passed sweeping civil rights legislation, and the more recent collaboration to enact major education reform with the No Child Left Behind law. In each of these cases, bipartisanship was central to progress.

Lately the news from Washington could lead one to believe this sort of cooperation is impractical or perhaps impossible. Yet even after last November’s intensely partisan election resulted in a more divided government, the Pew Research Center found that solid majorities of Americans said President Obama and Republican leaders should try to work together, even if it meant disappointing their supporters. In a subsequent survey in January, on the eve of the new Congress, those majorities had grown larger.

At The Pew Charitable Trusts, we recognize that bipartisanship can be difficult to achieve. But we also have long known it is essential—and attainable—for solving our nation’s problems. In this issue of Trust, we describe three Pew initiatives that are succeeding because leaders were willing to work across party lines to build strong alliances for the common good.

Key members of the House and Senate from both parties put aside their differences to join forces and, in the final days of the last Congress, passed the most comprehensive reform of food safety laws in more than 70 years. Grounded in science-based standards, the legislation will improve our ability to detect and respond to outbreaks of foodborne illnesses, which sicken 48 million Americans annually.

Working closely with the food industry, the Pew Health Group led a diverse alliance of consumer and health organizations and victims of food-related illnesses to press for passage of the act. This coalition continues to urge lawmakers to provide additional funding for the Food and Drug Administration, which has many new responsibilities under the statute, including increased inspections of manufacturing facilities.

Basing legislation on sound science helps develop broad support for a range of issues that Pew works to advance. One recent example came when Congress approved the Shark Conservation Act, which ends shark finning in U.S. waters. The world’s shark population is in serious jeopardy, with an estimated 73 million killed every year primarily to support the shark fin trade, which provides soup to wealthy diners in Asian markets. Along the eastern U.S. coast, some populations, such as scalloped hammerheads and dusky sharks, have plummeted by as much as 80 percent since the 1970s.

The unanimous votes in the House and Senate to approve the law illustrate the growing understanding of the species’ importance at the top of the marine food chain, a message the Pew Environment Group is taking to policy makers in the United States and throughout the world. The new shark protections also show that it is possible to find areas of common agreement on issues that will have a lasting impact on future generations.

Similar cooperation across the political aisle has been occurring in many state capitals where legislators are contending with escalating corrections costs. Annual state spending on corrections has grown from $11 billion to $52 billion over the past two decades. Despite the increasing expense, a recent Pew Center on the States study found that recidivism rates remain high, with more than four in 10 offenders returning to prison within three years of their release.

Pew’s research, and our ability to offer expert guidance on the development of alternative sentencing and corrections policies, have attracted the attention of a growing number of governors, legislators and judicial leaders who want to improve public safety and spend tax dollars more effectively. We have worked in 26 states, including Arizona, where new reforms helped produce a 30 percent decline in new felony convictions among probationers in the past two years. This spring, Kentucky overhauled its penal code with Pew’s help and estimates it will save more than $400 million over the next decade. The state’s secretary of justice and public safety called the legislation a “unique, unprecedented, coordinated bipartisan effort.”

As we endeavor to ensure safer food, conserve sharks and advance effective corrections policies, Pew has worked with an array of partners—including scientists, advocates and legislators— who share our goals. In this issue of Trust, Sally O’Brien, managing director of Pew’s Philanthropic Partnership Group, explains how we collaborate with a diverse and generous group of donors interested in serving the public good.

The policy accomplishments detailed in the following pages are heartening, not only for the benefit they will bring to society but because they illustrate the effectiveness of bipartisan problem-solving. We can draw encouragement from these achievements because they demonstrate that our challenges can be met and our differences made smaller when we work together.

Read more about Pew's work in the Summer 2011 issue of Trust magazine (PDF).

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