Kentucky voices

Ky. Voices: Praise leaders who bend, if you want compromise

No sense of urgency while voters reward bad behavior

October 6, 2013 

The U.S. government has shut down again. Leaders in Washington could not compromise their way to a timely budget, and now they've failed to devise a temporary substitute.

Employees have been sent home, Web pages turned off and national parks closed. Your representatives have failed you. It's time to get angry, but at whom? In a complex system like ours, people usually just follow their prejudices.

Many blame the Tea Party conservatives. They're the ones who insisted that any "continuing resolution" must delay implementation (and drop certain features) of Obamacare, the health-care initiative that Democrats passed when they held both Congress and the White House.

Conservatives are fully aware that Obamacare represents the president's signature domestic-policy achievement, and they've offered him nothing serious in exchange for hitting pause. It's not a legitimate negotiating position.

Or you might want to blame President Barack Obama. He's insisted that no solution for keeping the government funded may move forward if it slows down Obamacare.

You cannot justify his position, as some commentators would have you believe, by arguing that once Congress authorizes an entitlement then it's obligated to keep the commitment at budget time. Legislatures reconsider spending priorities at the budgetary stage all the time.

Nor is it true that delaying Obamacare necessarily would undermine it. The hasty rollout has resulted in errors and software glitches, and the White House itself has ignored parts of the law's timetable.

Rather, the problem is that Obama is no more ready to give political ground than his opponents are. He's willing to let the government shut down rather than delay his pet project.

White House strategists are fully aware that many of the newer Republicans in Congress specifically targeted Obamacare when campaigning for office. The GOP governs the House of Representatives in part thanks to success selling this message: Far more Americans think Obamacare will worsen health care than think it will make things better.

Yet the president demands that those same representatives condone this sweeping alteration to the nation's health-care system. He's offered them nothing serious in return: My way or the highway. It's not a legitimate negotiating position.

Then again, you might want to blame the experienced leaders in Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, who have not been able to carry out proper budgetary procedures for years. Stumbling from one short-term fix to the next creates economically harmful uncertainty.

Meanwhile, federal debt mounts at an astronomical rate: more than a trillion in deficits for years in a row, and well more than half a trillion added this year. If you toss in so-called "mandatory" future spending then we're moving into levels of indebtedness this country's never sustained before.

Yet where's the sense of urgency?

Reducing red ink would require a painful combination of revenue increases, spending decreases and programmatic reforms — including concessions that would enrage activists in both parties.

Rather than jointly put their political fortunes on the line to negotiate something that could make a difference, however, party leaders have staked out positions that never could win bipartisan support.

Republicans will not raise taxes. Democrats will not touch the truly expensive programs. And both sides demand that their opponents expose themselves first. No one with institutional responsibility has occupied a legitimate negotiating position.

At this point perhaps you're thinking my conclusion is: Blame them all.

That's what increasingly cynical Americans are inclined to do. But they've got it exactly backwards.

When so many elected officials behave so badly, the problem's with the voters. The American public has not been demanding good behavior, and they fail to reward it if they receive it.

When a leader compromises to promote the public good — whether that's Obama's willingness to slice spending in the budget "sequester" or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's work with Vice President Joe Biden to lift the debt ceiling — any praise is drowned out by howls of protest from their own partisans. Little wonder leadership is rare.

It's time to change that. Demand compromise. Watch who comes forward with realistic solutions. Lavish them with praise and support, so that advancing the public good pays off politically.

If leaders learn that lesson now, maybe they'll remember it when they turn to bigger issues later.

D. Stephen Voss is associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky.

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