Fiscal cliff debate would benefit from a fresh approach to negotiation
“America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership, Americans deserve better” - The words of then-Senator Barak Obama in 2006.
|Too bad the fiscal cliff isn't as scenic as this one.|
Here we sit in the aftermath of the 2008 economic meltdown. America is entering the second term of the Obama administration and partisan gridlock seems more entrenched than ever before. The fiscal cliff sits threateningly on the horizon. In fact, in the middle of December, both parties seem no less entrenched in their positions than before the election. The Republican-controlled House is focused on stopping the perceived excesses of the Obama administration; the Democratic-controlled Senate feels more empowered to push its agenda while the president begins to think of his legacy. In light of these entrenched views, can across-the-board cuts and tax increases be avoided in January?
Of course it can. However, it will take a different kind of conversation and principled negotiation to move forward in the new Washington reality. Historically, Washington has been a place of competitive compromise. When a major decision loomed on the horizon, the different players would argue, accuse, threaten and pontificate until the 11th hour, and then agreement would be reached. This approach of establishing positions and giving in as little as possible until the last minute worked when both parties were interested in dancing this dance. (Perhaps, it will happen like that again. But, in the current political environment, one wonders about the ability of these bodies to agree on legislation of this magnitude.)
Beginning with the Contract for America in the 1990s, new reality began to develop in D.C. Ideologues began to be elected. At this moment, people are serving in both houses who were elected with the standard of “don’t give in.” For those on the right – “Don’t give in to big government and out of control spending.” For this group, the fiscal cliff can be avoided by cutting costs only. For those on the left – “Don’t give up the gains made in social justice and extending governmental services.” For this group, the primary way to address the economic problems is to raise taxes on the rich. In the meantime, the Government Accountability Office states that both tax increases and spending reductions are necessary to resolve our economic problems. Yet, compromise on principles seems weak and disingenuous to a segment of our political leaders.
But there is hope for a fresh start, but that fresh start will require a different commitment and spirit than exists today. Trent Lott, former majority leader of the Senate, said these politicians need to set aside their strongly held positions and “really learn how to listen to each other.” But it goes beyond listening. The two parties and the president must develop legislative recommendations based on consensus that takes shape through in-depth conversations. The president in particular will need to clarify his agenda, since he holds the strongest position of power in Washington at this moment, leaving room for the Republicans to make gains also. Upon this clarification by the president, an agenda should be set with a schedule for action that emanates from the White House. The president and his team must decide that drawing lines between themselves and the speaker of the House at university campuses won’t necessarily resolve the problem. Therefore, instead of attempting to force the competition into cooperation, the president must be ready to steer the conversation rather than dictate it.
However, Congress and the Senate will also need to step up to the plate. These Houses should stay in session and communicate with each other on a daily basis until a mutual plan is developed. The speaker of the House and majority leader of the Senate have to spend hours engaging each other in respectful dialogue until they are able to appreciate each others’ position and find ways to address each others’ interests.
In many ways, the House and Senate have abandoned their regular order of work and have depended too much on the media and party designates to communicate their messages. Both entities need to involve their committees and subcommittees in the hard work of hammering out legislation and quit depending on the top of the respective tickets to solve their problems for them. We all know that significant differences exist, but these differences require more communication, not less. Members of the House and Senate need to have conversations, mark up bills, confer with each other and eventually take final action by bringing both bodies together to vote on final passage and send it to the president to sign or veto.
In this substantial fight, we have forgotten that democracy is a process and this process will save us. As Lott said, “Both parties need to remember that the goal is a better future for this country”…not for their respective parties.
I recently visited with a long-time congressman and asked him about a mutual acquaintance from a different political party who serves with him in Congress. He replied, “He is a really nice guy and does some good work, but I think we can pick him off.”
We have a long way to go.
Please, trust the process of negotiation and compromise that have been the historical strengths of our two-party system.