Political battles in Washington reveal the sad state of governing.
Traditional pragmatism has been replaced by strict partisanship. Checks and balances are threatened.
Partisanship – “It’s my way or the highway” – has replaced the pragmatic style of government. Our tradition has been to find practical solutions to clear public needs.
Is there no role for partisanship, but always middle-of-the-road compromise?
As one of today’s popular sayings notes, “Elections have results.” Voters may give one side the controlling hand in government, so the views of that party have a right to dominate the results. But dominating to the exclusion of the other party doesn’t work.
Take the Affordable Care Act, a name not used by opponents who insist on calling it Obamacare. It was adopted by Congress when both houses were controlled by Democrats and Barack Obama was in the White House. Not a single Republicans voted for it.
Even worse, Senate Democrats used a legislative maneuver called “reconciliation” when they no longer had the 60 senators needed to block a filibuster. Reconciliation allowed them to dodge the filibuster that could kill the bill.
This year, congressional Republicans ran the Democratic tactics through the copier. They wanted to pass a “repeal and replace” bill through filibuster-proof reconciliation without a single Democratic vote.
The Democrats had adopted a health care policy extending coverage to millions of people, financed by tax increases on the wealthy. By excluding most GOP suggestions and hence their votes, the Dems paved the way for a later Republican attempt to cut the coverage and the taxes.
Because the Republicans had done a far better job in attacking the ACA than Obama did in selling it, the GOP could reasonably expect it would be easy to defeat. They failed to reckon with the millions of newly covered people who came to like the ACA.
The only likely solution will be to repair the inefficiencies of the ACA and keep its costs under control. Members of both parties have put forth good reform ideas. Right now, GOP congressional leadership still rules out cooperating with the Democrats. It’s a matter of partisanship over pragmatism.
The president and Congress have historically found ways of working together. In the case of health care, the White House might have taken the lead, laying out its proposals. Instead, President Trump, lacking a proposal of his own, has been willing to sign anything the GOP can pass and then claim victory.
Trump has little apparent regard for Congress and little understanding of the legislative system. On health care, he has attacked Republican members of Congress, whose support will be essential on other issues. Short on substance but strong on salesmanship, he is losing support of what is supposed to be his party.
This split could not be more obvious than in the nearly unanimous congressional vote to impose sanctions on Russia for its role in the 2016 elections, its takeover of Crimea and its support of Syria’s dictator.
Russia’s involvement in the elections was meant to help Trump in the hope he would allow it a freer hand in the world. He seemed eager to accommodate Russia’s President Putin, and contrary to sound evidence, questioned whether Russia had tried to influence the election.
While Trump may have worried about the effect of Russian involvement on the legitimacy of his victory, Congress focused on combating increased Russian aggressiveness. The new, veto-proof bill was aimed more at taming Trump than at punishing Russia.
The Russia confrontation between Congress and Trump illustrates another fundamental element of the political system, now under pressure. A central part of the American political experiment is the concept of checks and balances, allowing one part of the government to limit another.
That means the president is subject to congressional checks and does not have an unfettered right to set policy. He is commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, not of the government or of the country.
Trump seems to think his electoral victory represented a mandate for the government to give him complete loyalty. In effect, he expects Congress to make good on his election promises. As president, he expects loyalty to flow toward him, though he owes none to Congress.
Like Trump, congressional Republicans promised to repeal the ACA. Their leaders insist that, above all, they must keep their promise even if that might cost them votes.
The run-up to the 2018 congressional elections and their outcome may reveal if most voters believe practical solutions of major issues are more important than keeping campaign promises.
Can practical solutions beat hard-line partisanship?