The budget negotiations in Washington D.C. roll on, with the odds increasing that a package of January 1 tax hikes and spending cuts will kick in automatically. I’ve argued before that not only is not the worst outcome, it might well be the best possible one, given the results of the last election.
What is disturbing is what this whole process says about our political system—both parties seem to agree, or at least give lip service to the idea, that what lies ahead on New Year’s must be avoided, but they’re unable to reach an agreement. Has our political system failed?
This is a common theme expressed by pundits on either side of the ideological divide, and I understand where they’re coming from. But the “political system” is the same one that was faced by political foes like former president Ronald Reagan and former Speaker Tip O’Neill. But when all was said and done—and a lot was said—they managed to work out a deal. And according to those that knew them, maintained a friendship along with it.
We could go back through American history and find any number of instances of a Congress and White House controlled by different parties, throwing hostile rhetoric out, but still finding a way to work out their differences in the end.
Therefore, to blame it on “the system” lets off the hook the people who are in office, and the well-organized ideological groups that put them there and keep the pressure on. A toxic environment has been created where anyone who even speaks of compromise is publicly branded a traitor and potentially faces a primary challenge. If this environment is what one means by “the system” then I agree that it has failed
I find it ironic that I have to make this argument, because I’m usually sympathetic to the view that one should stand on principle, create clear choices for the American public, and if you lose the next election, so be it. But we just had that election. And we still have a Republican House, a Democratic president and a $16 trillion debt. Are we supposed to wait two—maybe four—more years before doing anything?
This is why I find the actions of people like Nancy Pelosi, who resist even mild reforms like raising the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 to be self-absorbed political nonsense. Or the actions of the rank-and-file House Republicans, who rejected their own speaker’s efforts to negotiate a reasonable compromise on tax rates on the upper brackets to be completely self-indulgent.
If this were six months prior to an election, I wouldn’t feel that way—in the months leading up to an election, the public interest is best served by creating clear choices. But there comes to a time when one has to accept the election results and work with what we have.
I am not suggesting that one give ground on vital questions of Catholic moral doctrine, but the issues at stake in the budget debate all surround prudential judgments on the level of taxes and spending.
Its one thing to make sure your side of the debate gets its fair share in negotiations. It’s quite another to act like you run the entire government when you plainly don’t. Obama’s apologists don’t get that. Those in the Republican House that undermined Boehner don’t get it either.
The time to campaign will come again, but when it comes to tax and budget policy it’s not right now. If the current political environment requires a perpetual campaign, then it’s this poisonous cloud—not the system—that needs to be fumigated.
Dan Flaherty is the author of Fulcrum, an Irish Catholic novel set in postwar Boston with a traditional Democratic mayoral campaign at its heart, and he is the editor-in-chief of TheSportsNotebook.com