Every American is tired of hearing about the government shutdown, the endless dysfunction of our elected leaders, and the looming debt ceiling that again must be raised to fuel the federal government’s insatiable appetite.
Many are tone deaf to arguments on both sides, while others take the Republican or Democratic position and pile on with endless finger pointing. Everyone has stakes in the outcomes, but it’s tough to find analysis that offers perspective. Although this is treacherous territory, I’ll try to gauge the prospects for resolving these policy differences by offering some historical lessons and my 15 years of experience in Washington, D.C., where I’ve worked with elected leaders and observed their behavior.
Successful politicians possess two skill sets: They campaign effectively to win elections, and they contribute to the governing process. In turn, governing requires a deep obligation to serve the people politicians represent, and negotiate agreements that ensure progress in managing our country’s affairs. The federal government then delivers the results of this governing process.
Campaigning is a winner-take-all event. In fact, it’s a blood sport in which you try to destroy your opponent. At best, virtues like fairness, honesty and ethics get blurred. At worst, they’re ignored. The toughest races (like presidential campaigns) not only make opponents look bad, but disparage their character, impugn their morals and sabotage their motives. Establishing a candidate’s superiority requires they concede no acceptable – let alone worthy – attribute to their opponent.
Candidates who prevail must then begin governing. Governing requires leaders to maintain operations, which forces them to find common ground with others sharing the authority. Politicians don’t choose their fellow leaders, but they’re obligated to work together – as a leadership team – if they’re to govern effectively. In contrast to campaigning, effective leadership in governing requires a foundation of respect, honesty and ethics. Governing together is of paramount importance. Regardless of differences, leaders must conduct the nation’s business. If they fail, progress ceases on all fronts.
History provides perspective on our current predicament because we’re dealing with institutions: the presidency, the House and the Senate. The nation’s healthcare strategy seems the center of this conflict, so I examined how past leaders implemented the Social Security Act of 1935, the Medicare Act of 1965 (the first government-operated insurance program), the 1972 Social Security COLA Amendments, the 1983 Social Security Update Amendments, and the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. I encourage you to read about these landmark laws because they’ve had major impacts on all Americans. For starters, visit the Social Security Administration’s website.
Here’s the voting history of these acts, all of which received presidential support:
|LEGISLATION||HOUSE VOTE FOR||SENATE VOTE FOR|
|Social Security Act of 1935||Dems-284, GOP-81||Dems-60, GOP-16|
|Medicare Act of 1965||Dems-237, GOP-70||Dems-57, GOP-13|
|SS COLA Amendment of 1972||Dems-193, GOP-109||Dems-41, GOP-35|
|SS Update Amendments of 1983||Dems-163, GOP-80||Dems-26, GOP-32|
|Welfare Reform Act of 1996||Dems-98, GOP-230||Dems-25, GOP-53|
|Affordable Care Act of 2010||Dems-219, GOP-0||Dems-58, GOP-0|
The ACA of 2010 was the only landmark initiative without bipartisan support. No matter how few from the minority party supported these acts, bipartisanship provided momentum for the original act to generate change. In fact, the legislative process is a never-ending effort to revise, update and improve previous initiatives. No legislation perfectly anticipates every situation, but when bipartisan agreements provide a foundation, progress follows if both sides have effective negotiators.
In 1983 and 1996 we had divided leadership, yet they passed major legislation because the Democratic and Republican negotiators were effective and trusted each other. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill had a good relationship and used financial decisions to achieve policy ends. People forget the government shut down in 1981, ’82, ’84, ’86 and ’87, but Reagan and O’Neill fashioned compromises that delivered legislative and policy actions.
The government shutdown in 1995-96 was brokered by President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich who, despite being fellow Southerners, had a poor personal relationship. Yet in a recent interview, Gingrich said he and President Clinton were in daily contact, in person or by phone. In other words, the two officials ultimately responsible for crafting policy and moving the country forward never stopped negotiating. That led to compromises and legislative actions.
Their counterparts today lack an effective relationship personally and professionally. House Speaker John Boehner heads a divided GOP caucus yet he is empowered to negotiate on behalf of the House and Republicans. Speaker Boehner is a 22-year House veteran, he has been a committee chair, and he served in several GOP leadership posts. Among his legislative achievements was his bipartisan work with Sen. Edward Kennedy on the “No Child Left Behind” act, which passed the House 384-41 and the Senate 91-8. When the ACA was moving through the House and Congress, then Minority Leader Boehner was one of several Republicans who met and discussed healthcare policy with President Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Boehner has a record of effective negotiation in leadership roles.
On the other side, President Obama leads the Democratic Party, which also has factions and controls the Senate. Obama served in the Senate four years, and did not chair any committees or serve any leadership roles for his party. He sponsored several bills, but none that became law were of national significance. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama was criticized for his lack of negotiating experience, and many unbiased observers believe he has yet to prove he can lead in times of legislative crisis. President Obama’s landmark legislative achievement, the ACA, didn’t need effective negotiations, which is why the bill garnered no minority support.
Unfortunately, the ingredients that resolved previous policy disputes aren’t present to resolve the current impasse. President Obama has publicly announced and personally communicated to Speaker Boehner that he will not negotiate because he believes our healthcare policy is settled. He has challenged Boehner to capitulate, end the government shutdown, and increase the debt ceiling before they can start negotiating. For his part, Speaker Boehner has repeatedly voiced his interest in negotiating with the president. He has also engineered passage of several House bills to help many groups hurt by the shutdown. The lack of ongoing dialogue between these leaders reveals a lack of trust, a precursor to talking.
Where does this analysis leave us? For now, I see no prospect for the compromise we desperately need. We have two public servants who don’t recognize that a policy impasse is holding America hostage. The situation poses an ominous threat to democracy. Therefore, the end game is unclear.
Without negotiations, what’s the next step? The all-or-nothing consequences of the current situation will severely weaken one of our two leaders, and will likely lead to their party being leaderless. This situation looks more like two politicians campaigning rather than governing. Speaker Boehner is challenging President Obama to ask the Senate to put any of the several House funding bills up for a vote in the Senate. Meanwhile, Obama is challenging Speaker Boehner to put a comprehensive funding bill up for a vote in the House. Both propositions would pass, but the outcome would be a loss for one of the two leaders.
What then? Do we want majority rule, because that’s the only outcome I envision. Is President Obama campaigning to permanently marginalize the GOP, and is the GOP campaigning to diminish a sitting U.S. president for the rest of his term? In any high-stakes negotiation, we have to trust that the two leaders at the table are governing. Each must have some credibility or leverage.
Our success as a democracy comes from a complicated and frustrating system of checks and balances, with a premium placed on protecting the minority’s rights. The lack of GOP support and involvement in the ACA is, in a historical sense, a sign that much negotiating remains. Looking back, it’s troubling that Majority Leader Reid circumvented the long-standing minority filibuster tradition by using the budget reconciliation process to pass the ACA in the Senate. Was that the first sign Democrats were contemplating majority rule as their end game? If so, then the means would be justified.
I wish I could ask our two leaders whether they’re campaigning to win the hearts and minds of Americans, or are they governing to do what’s best for Americans? Is this a winner-take-all situation? Or is this a governing process that requires negotiations to achieve compromises? The answer to those questions is of historical significance.
We should all weigh in. Our democracy’s future hangs in the balance.
Campaign, embed image: Dwight Eisenhower presidential campaign in Baltimore, Md., September 1952. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Featured image and flag photo courtesy of John Sonderman, Flickr Creative Commons