America is more politically polarized than it has been in decades, with polls showing voters who identify as Republican and Democrat diverging sharply on political values, how political problems should be solved, and what they believe the nation's biggest priorities should be. Voters from both parties are finding it harder to come to an agreement about some of the most contentious issues facing the U.S. today, from immigration to gun control.
The same inability to compromise is reflected on Capitol Hill; members have become more ideologically divided, with painful consequences. 2019 began with a 35-day government shutdown stemming from the Republican president and Democratic House of Representatives failing to compromise.
This political gridlock is often the result of divided government, when the two chambers of Congress (or the presidency and Congress) are controlled by different political parties. In times like these, Congress tends to pass less-significant legislation because it's difficult for either party to achieve their goals without giving up something else.
This doesn't mean it's impossible, however. Divided government may hold back sweeping reforms, but it forces the parties to come together and make more moderate changes that can make everyone happy. Some of America's most significant pieces of legislation have been the result of lawmakers reaching across the aisle and working alongside someone with whom they normally disagree. To determine the most important of these moments, Stacker referred to the list of the most significant bipartisan compromises in U.S. history, compiled by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit public policy organization.
This list includes bills, speeches from Congress, presidential Cabinet appointments, and even the “bundle of compromises” in the Constitution. Some are practical fixes to economic issues that everyone can agree on while others mark sweeping changes to pressing civil rights issues. Read on to see what even the most divided Congress can do when members work together.
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When writing the Constitution, America's Founding Fathers understood the need for compromise in creating a system of government acceptable to 13 diverse states. As the name suggests, the Great Compromise is one of the Constitutional Convention's most enduring deals. Conflict over how each state should be represented in Congress threatened to tear the convention apart: Large states wanted to base representation on population size while small states advocated for equal representation. To break the deadlock, two Connecticut representatives proposed a Congress with two chambers, one with equal representation and the other based on population. The Great Compromise only passed by one vote, but it's stood the test of time for more than 200 years.
Elected shortly before the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln followed up his shocking victory with another stunner: appointing William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates—the men he beat—to his Cabinet. A Democrat would later join them. Lincoln believed the people shouldn't be deprived of America's best thinkers and strongest leaders simply because the president disagreed with them. It also allowed him to unite the factions of the newly formed Republican party, and present a united front against the seceded Southern states.
Harry Truman assumed the presidency in April 1945, after Franklin D. Roosevelt died 11 weeks into his fourth term. Three months later, Truman found himself needing to fill another vacancy after Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts resigned from the bench. Truman likely could have appointed a fellow Democrat to the seat, but the new president wanted to signal to Republicans that he was different than his predecessor, who tried to pack the court with sympathetic judges in 1937. Truman nominated a Republican senator, Harold Burton, who was the only Republican appointed to the court from 1933 to 1953.
As World War II drew to a bitter close, both parties were becoming increasingly polarized over America's international responsibilities. Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, the party's unofficial voice on foreign policy, had been a firm advocate of American isolationism. His views softened over the years, and on Jan. 10, 1945, he shocked colleagues when he gave a speech on the Senate floor proclaiming that no country could “immunize itself” from conflicts in the world. Vandenberg's speech fueled a period of bipartisan foreign policy, during which it pushed through important international agreements like the Marshall Plan and NATO.
At the peak of the civil rights movement, House Democrats finally passed a civil rights bill with the support of the White House, guaranteeing legal rights long-denied to African-Americans. Only the Senate stood in the way of this historic achievement, specifically the 21 Democratic senators from southern states who opposed the bill and began a filibuster to block it. Democratic majority leader Mike Mansfield reached across the aisle to his Republican counterpart, Everett Dirksen, to make the bill more acceptable to Republicans as a joint force. Dirksen went on to deliver a powerful speech from the Senate floor, calling on Republicans to end the debate and bring the Civil Rights Act to a vote: 27 were inspired to join the northern Democrats, and as a result, the filibuster ended, and the bill passed nine days later.
Lyndon B. Johnson set an ambitious policy agenda for his first full term as president. His Great Society aimed to improve education, fight poverty, increase access to voting, and prevent crime, among other projects. Congress took up the call and turned his progressive goals into significant legislative achievements. The Great Society increased Social Security, created Medicare and Medicaid, and supported African-Americans' economic development in the post-Jim Crow era.
Neil Armstrong's “giant leap for mankind” was the culmination of a huge push by Congress to build a space program that could beat the Soviet Union to the moon. After the USSR launched Sputnik in 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower called on Congress to support a stronger American space program. Both parties worked together to create and fund the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which sent Apollo 11 to space a decade later. Since then, both parties have continued to support NASA, with human travel to Mars as the next major goal.
Two Democratic Congress members, Sen. Harrison Williams and Rep. John Dingell, wrote the Endangered Species Act in response to President Richard Nixon's call to strengthen federal efforts to protect endangered species. Republicans responded positively to the bill, which added protections for plants and invertebrates, as well as the habitats they live in. It passed with overwhelming support, and many species have been taken off the endangered list entirely as a result. Despite the bill's success, members of both parties have attempted to weaken the law in the decades since.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration created the Food Stamp Program in 1939 to address the poverty caused the by the Great Depression. It was phased out in the early 1940s with the post-war economic boom. President Lyndon Johnson made it part of his Great Society programs in the 1960s, but by the 1970s, Republican lawmakers were put off by food stamps' increasing cost. They introduced new eligibility requirements and cost controls, but Democrats feared that people who needed help were being subjected to an overly complicated process. Republican Sen. Bob Dole and Democratic Sen. George McGovern worked together and came to a compromise that streamlined the program while giving benefits to those who needed them most.
One of the New Deal's most enduring legacies, Social Security has long been a point of division between Democrats and Republicans. In 1981, the parties were forced to come together after the program threatened to run a deficit. President Ronald Reagan convened a commission to recommend solutions, and leading senators from both parties, Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, created a group to turn those suggestions into legislation. Moynihan in particular reminded fellow Democrats not to get caught up in partisan fighting, and instead focus on finding a workable solution. They came to an agreement and managed to pull the program back from the brink, which was the last time Congress was able to agree to reform on this scale.
Ronald Reagan's presidency was defined by economic policies that lowered tax rates on businesses and individuals, and rolled back regulation for businesses. Reagan's most enduring achievement, however, is the Tax Reform Act of 1986. The bill overcame a divided Congress and several near-failures to achieve Republican goals to lower tax rates and Democrats' desires to close loopholes. The bipartisan support behind the bill was fundamental to its passage, and the increasing polarization between the parties on issues of economic policy meant there was no significant rewriting of the tax code until 2017. In the 2017 reform, however, Congress voted along party lines.
Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, the disability rights movement picked up steam throughout the 1970s as court victories inspired disability rights lawsuits across the country. By the 1980s, discrimination was still the biggest problem facing the community, and people with disabilities lacked civil rights protections on a federal level. Even after the Americans with Disabilities Act was written, critics claimed these accommodations were unnecessary. Congress ignored them, and worked across the aisle to pass this landmark piece of civil rights legislation.
The 1994 midterm elections marked the first time since the early 1950s that Republicans had managed to gain a majority in the House of Representatives. A significant number of the remaining House Democrats felt this electoral defeat was a sign that the party had moved too far to the left. 47 frustrated Democratic representatives formed the fiscally conservative and national security-focused Blue Dog Coalition, and began working with members of both parties to find agreeable solutions for economic issues. The Blue Dog Coalition's power reached its peak in 2009, when it controlled 21% of the Democratic party's votes. The 2018 midterm elections also saw an influx of new Blue Dogs hoping to work on moderate legislation.
President Bill Clinton's welform reform bill marked the most significant, and controversial, changes to America's social safety net since President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, and only passed after a bitter fight in Congress. Though both parties feared that citizens had become too reliant on the welfare system, Clinton vetoed the first two bills passed by the Republican-controlled legislature. Congress worked with the White House on the third, agreeing to a state-run system that put a five-year limit on benefits and established work requirements for recipients in exchange for increased education and childcare funding. More than 20 years later, the compromise has reduced the number of welfare recipients, but has demonstrated mixed results in reducing the number of people living in poverty.
Until his death in 2009, long-serving Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy was a fierce advocate for health care for all Americans, and spearheaded a number of landmark pieces of legislation. Kennedy wrote the bill that formed the State Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP), offering matching federal funds for state government programs that offered insurance to children whose families earned too much money to qualify for Medicaid. The bill seemed like a hard sell to Republicans until Sen. Orrin Hatch, Kennedy's longtime friend and fellow advocate for bipartisan health care reform, signed on. Support for CHIP has endured in both parties, overcoming partisan gridlock in 2018 to guarantee funding for the next decade.
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was a re-authorization of President Lyndon Johnson's Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and created direct federal oversight for schools. Each school would have to meet annual testing standards to demonstrate students were making adequate progress. Members of Congress, worried that American schools were no longer internationally competitive, jumped to sign onto the bill; even President George W. Bush's biggest critics approved. However, teachers became the greatest critics of the reforms after its passage, arguing that NCLB put too much emphasis on standardized testing and increased educational inequality for low-income and minority students.
The September 11th attacks brought a politically divided America together in the face of national tragedy. Members of Congress joined together at the Capitol Building to sing “God Bless America,” and President Bush's approval ratings in the months after 9/11 were the highest of any American president in history. Support for the authorization of military force was almost universal among both Congress members and citizens. Congress also passed the controversial Patriot Act, which expanded law enforcement's ability to surveil and investigate citizens believed to be involved in terrorist activities. As the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan wore on, both issues became increasingly polarized.
Before his death in 2018, long-serving Republican Sen. John McCain made reforming money in politics one of his biggest legislative goals. The narrow, controversial outcome of the 2000 presidential election provided to be the push both parties needed to make much-needed changes to the system. McCain teamed up with Democrat and fellow campaign finance reformer Sen. Russell Feingold to introduce a bill to end the influence of “soft money donations” not regulated by other campaign finance laws. The bill also regulated who could make advertisements for candidates.
The 2004 midterm elections saw a new Republican majority take the Senate, which threatened to change the rules over how Supreme Court judges were appointed to their lifelong tenure. “The nuclear option” would get rid of the rule that required 60 senators to confirm judicial nominees, and instead let them through with a simple majority of the vote. A group of 14 senators, seven from each party, came together to put a stop to the change. The Republican members promised not to vote for the nuclear option if the Democrats would vote for their nominees. Normal order resumed until Democrats used the nuclear option to confirm their nominees in 2013. Republicans used it again to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court in 2017.
President Barack Obama never hid his admiration of President Lincoln. Obama was sworn into office on Lincoln's bible, and deliberately modeled his Cabinet on the former president's “Team of Rivals.” He selected Hillary Clinton, who he had defeated in the Democratic primary, as secretary of state, and Sen. Joseph Biden as vice president for both his terms. Republican rivals were also appointed to leadership roles. Rep. Ray LaHood was promoted to secretary of transportation, and Robert Gates stayed on as secretary of defense (despite Obama's criticism of how he'd handled the Iraq War under President Bush). It's unclear whether these conflicting personalities had an impact on his administration's policy decisions.
In 2010, President Obama worked with the newly empowered Congressional Republicans to extend the two tax cuts President Bush put into place by two years. Obama wanted to extend the tax cuts on the middle class while letting the cuts on the wealthy expire. Senate Republicans blocked his proposal, unless the taxes on the upper class were also extended. Despite protests from Democratic Congress members, Obama and the Republicans eventually reached a deal that left most of the Bush-era measures in place, cutting taxes across income levels and in specific industries. Many of these measures were made permanent as part of a 2013 tax deal.
The Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act loosened some restrictions on small businesses, making it easier to invest in startups, and making it simpler for them to go public. This also allowed them to use crowdfunding to raise money. Supporting small businesses is a winning political strategy for lawmakers in both parties, and the bill passed by wide margins in the House and Senate. Companies have raised billions since the law went into effect, though its biggest change (allowing for crowdfunding) has yet to catch on.
The 2013 budget agreement between Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan marked the first time in almost five years that lawmakers could overcome their differences and agree on a budget. The agreement set the budget about halfway between those proposed by the Democratic Senate and the Republican House, and avoided big questions about cutting spending or raising taxes that had derailed the conversation in the past. Republicans in particular disliked the deal, but it eventually became the template for the budgets proposed later in the Obama administration.
By the time President Obama was elected to his second term, nearly everyone agreed the high-pressure test-based system set up by the No Child Left Behind Act needed to be replaced with something new. Finding a system that everyone could agree on proved difficult, however. Eventually Congress agreed on a system that returned much of the power over education to the states and school districts. It removed the requirement that all students be proficient in math and reading by a certain date, replacing it with a more personalized system of closing achievement gaps as part of a bigger picture. This won the support of teachers' unions and some education reformers, as well as lawmakers in both parties.
Passed during President Obama's final days in office, the 21st Century Cures Act enjoyed a robust display of bipartisan support thanks to its diverse range of health care initiatives. Among them were changes to the Food and Drug Administration that sped up medical research and treatments, funding for the opioid epidemic and cancer research, and plans to improve mental health services. Unlike the Affordable Care Act, a health care reform that has long been a source of partisan fighting, the Republican senators who wrote the Cures Act consulted with Democrats from the beginning. The bill included initiatives long-desired by both Democrats and Republicans, as well as solutions to pressing issues like prescription drug abuse.
The bitter, partisan fight over repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA)was one of the biggest political news stories of President Donald Trump's first year in office. Republicans had control of both chambers of Congress and the White House for the first time in a decade. With this, they hoped to make good on their promise to repeal and replace the ACA with several partisan health care reforms that would have stripped health insurance from millions of Americans. Republicans wrote the bill using a rule that would allow it be passed by 51 votes instead of the usual 60. Sen. John McCain flew back to Washington D.C. while receiving treatment for brain cancer to urge Republicans to “return to normal order,” and pass the bill through bipartisan means. He surprised lawmakers by becoming the third Republican no-vote on the reform bill, effectively ending the repeal effort.