It is amazing what a deadline can do to focus the hearts and minds of our government. In the final days of the lame-duck session, Congress passed and sent to the president a major piece of tax and economic stimulus legislation, including the extension of unemployment benefits; the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, the nearly 20-year old Pentagon policy; historic food safety legislation; and the landmark START Treaty on nuclear weapons reduction. Most importantly, all were passed with bipartisan support. Maybe one of the lessons of all of this is to shorten the congressional session to one month per year. All kidding aside, it does demonstrate that the calendar, coupled with a historic election, can act as a catalyst for Congress and the president to get things done for the American people with a cautious but healthy move towards bipartisan agreements. Reading the tea leaves, Congress obviously recognized that the American electorate was demanding progress in a variety of areas affecting their day-to-day lives.
Nevertheless, the rush towards bipartisan nirvana is likely to be a very rocky one. The most bearish scenario is that the House Republican majority and an energized Senate minority will work to block President Obama‘s initiatives for the rest of his first term, and the political gamesmanship and hyper-partisanship on both sides of the political aisle will impede any meaningful progress on a variety of issues, especially our growing national debt. On the other hand, I prefer to believe that divided government will force the parties to reach consensus more often, spurred by an electorate that is becoming increasingly frustrated with the current economic anxieties and continued loss of jobs. There are major initiatives in agriculture, energy, education, and homeland security, issues that have historically resulted in both political parties coming together for the public good, and we could see progress in these areas during the next two years. Of course, many of the issues that drive and divide us are real and significant, and the solutions difficult and tricky.
But the real test of bipartisanship lies in the ability of our political system to address the most pressing of all problems, the national debt, in a fair and meaningful way. Congress, the president and the American people must recognize, as the Bowles-Simpson and Domenici-Rivlin debt proposals demonstrated, that only with sensible domestic spending reductions, entitlement reforms, and tax changes, which increase federal revenues and provide tax reform to all Americans without harming the economy in the process, can any effective debt reduction proposal take shape. Ultimately, by addressing this national challenge, America will see its strength and job producing capabilities reinforced, restoring its place of leadership in the world.
It is easy to be bipartisan when benefits are being added and the American people don’t feel any sacrifice, as occurred in the recently passed tax bill. In the case of serious deficit and debt reduction, it is harder to call efforts like this a “win/win” for America in the shorter-term. But if history is any guide, both political parties will likely work with their respective bases to fight anything which jeopardizes them in the next election. The simple truth is that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to develop a fair and sensible formula to solve our nation’s debt crisis. Solutions exist that don’t cause gratuitous pain and hurt, but require some collective sacrifice — nothing that the country can’t bear either in the short or long term. The question is whether there is the leadership in our political system to help deliver all of this for the American people. Without bipartisan leadership, there are no bipartisan solutions.
Over two hundred years ago, in his farewell address, George Washington called for men to put aside (political) party and unite for the common good. In the address, Washington was rather clairvoyant in describing excessive adherence to political party as destructive to the nation. We should heed his advice today. The alternative is a weaker America, both domestically and internationally. We cannot let that happen. And, realistically we will never find nirvana, but America as a “shining city on the hill” is not a bad second choice if we seek common ground.