by Robert B. Reich

Bipartisanship broke out in the lame-duck Congress. Most notably, Republicans voted with Democrats for the New START treaty with Russia and the end of a 17-year ban on openly gay soldiers.

Does this signal a new era of bipartisanship in 2011? No chance. Neither of these victories had anything to do with the economy or taxes -- in other words, with the central question of who gets what in America.

The president couldn't get a single Republican to agree to limit the Bush tax cuts to the first $250,000 of income. The GOP held out until it got an extension for millionaires at a cost in lost revenues of more than $30 billion a year, along with a major cut in the estate tax for families with assets over $10 million.

Another important defeat for Obama during the lame-duck session: Republicans blocked consideration of the House-passed DISCLOSE Act, which would have required groups that spend money on outside political advertising to disclose the major sources of their funding.

Talk about who gets what in America. Secret payoffs have become a major way the powerful maintain their special privileges.

Last January's shameful Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, opened the floodgates. In its wake, secret groups doled out an estimated $190 million to Republican candidates in the midterm elections, outspending their adversaries by a more than 2-to-1 ratio, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The lesson from the last Congress is that bipartisanship is possible on foreign policy. It's even possible on certain social issues, such as gays in the military. But when it comes to protecting the fortunes of America's rich (mostly top corporate executives and Wall Street) and maintaining their stranglehold on politics, Republicans won't budge.

Last year they obstructed efforts to close a tax loophole that treats many of the earnings of hedge-fund and private-equity managers as capital gains, taxed at 15 percent rather than as ordinary income. These guys make tens of millions a year and pay taxes at a lower rate than you do.

Republicans also blocked efforts to cap the size of Wall Street's major banks. And they voted down legislation allowing distressed homeowners to reorganize their mortgage debt under bankruptcy.

In the meantime, the great divide has grown worse.

The recession is over on Wall Street and in the executive suites of America's biggest corporations. The stock market is up, corporate profits are soaring, and Wall Street is back to awarding generous bonuses. This Christmas, retail sales boomed at Tiffany & Co. and Neiman Marcus.

But most Americans are still in the Great Recession. They're suffering high unemployment, declining wages and falling home prices. A recent Washington Post survey showed a majority of Americans anxious about meeting their mortgage payments.

And rather than grace upscale retailers, Americans are buying secondhand. According to the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops, net sales were up 13 percent this year from 2009, the strongest growth in five years.

When I point this out, some people accuse me of being a class warrior. Actually, I'm a class worrier. I worry we can't have a strong economy when most Americans don't have enough money to buy what Americans are capable of producing. I worry we can't have a strong nation when we're becoming so sharply divided by income and wealth.

Don't expect a bipartisan move in the 112th Congress to change this. To the contrary, House Republicans are readying proposals for a so-called "flat" income tax that would, in effect, lower the rates of people at the top and raise them for people of modest means.

They're also preparing legislation to slash the budget deficit by cutting spending on programs important to America's working and middle classes and to the poor. These include Pell grants that enable kids from low-income families to attend college, as well as child care and Social Security.

And they're intent on repealing President Obama's health-care legislation that expands coverage to more than 30 million Americans.

So don't believe what you hear about bipartisanship, at least when it comes to who gets what. The only way we'll see more bipartisanship in 2011 will be if more Democrats join Republicans to further entrench power and privilege in America. But that's not the kind of bipartisanship we need.

Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of the book "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future."


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New Era of Bipartisanship in 2011? No Chance | Politics