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Lamenting the lost art of compromise

By Jennie Young • Dec 3, 2017 at 12:00 AM

After the Senate’s second failure to pass a Trumpcare bill, I happened upon a CSPAN panel discussion on the 115th Congress — hosted by the Brookings Institute — in the middle of Norm Ornstein’s opening statement. I’ve long admired him, a moderate Republican who’s co-authored two books with moderate Democrats. I like that. The writers have to reach consensus for the project to proceed.

Norm was regretting the absence of a deliberative process in both House and Senate, which has become ever so apparent since Republicans regained control of the executive and legislative branches. It’s their ballgame, and nine months in, they haven’t yet figured how to deal with various parts of the majorities they’ve been engineering for years. What happened? Norm says something like this. Create a tribal media (think Fox News) and tribal politics. When you’re in the minority, you make a tactical decision for electoral gain that no matter what the majority proposes, you’re going to oppose it.

And that’s what they did throughout Obama’s administrations, even after the 2010 election when they gained control of both houses. They doubled down on being the party of “No.” Norm’s worry was palpable as he explained further. What happens after so many years of inaction is, he says, that the capacity to be a deliberative body, to even develop policy alternatives, atrophies. Developing policy alternatives, particularly using the deliberative process with any bipartisan effort, is hard to do, requires heavy lifting and working through a lot of opposition. Now, with a Republican president, Congress should have the initiative, but it’s atrophied enough that they may not be able to regain a process that used to produce results. They forgot how.

Norm’s words helped me understand the desperation in Sen. John McCain’s plea to his colleagues prior to his dramatic thumbs-down vote. This man, whose life (barring a miracle) will be over soon, stood before the Senate, whose traditions he had revered for years, but watched deteriorate over the last few, and begged his colleagues to restore “regular order” and “the deliberative proces,” neither of which played a role in the crafting of the bill before them. It was an eloquent, heart-rending plea to his fellows to acknowledge the folly of a majority intent on doing everything within its own membership with narrow numbers and with divisions in its own ranks.

Reach across the aisle, he said, consult experts and stakeholders who know what we need, hold exhaustive committee hearings — to get it right, to have something worth offering besides slap-dash products nobody trusts. Like the Senate he had revered all his political life before it went so off track.

Neither the House nor the Senate ever came up with a viable health care alternative although they’d promised one within a hundred days after Obamacare passed. But they wasted a grand amount of time voting to repeal Obamacare more than fifty times. Our own U.S. Rep. Phil Roe kept reporting on the “great progress” — with virtually nothing by way of evidence.

I believe it was Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., with uncharacteristic candor, who explained the haphazard way both houses failed with their repeal and replace proposals. He said they hadn’t even bothered to prepare anything during Obama’s administrations because they assumed a Democrat veto for anything they passed. So they postured, cast meaningless multiple votes and made noise, only pretending to have a useful plan ready to roll out. (Our tax dollars at work.)

Here’s Norm again: If you don’t have competing alternatives for working out compromises, and if you’ve conditioned people to believe everything that the other side did is so evil that you can’t keep any of it, you’re left with nothing. All the big issues become more difficult. It means that, because you’ve excited a tribal media and base, you’re driven more by their demands than by workable policy, on healthcare, taxes, infrastructure, or anything else on the wish list. Then there are the billionaire donors to satisfy. It becomes even more mindless when they act like they don’t even know it’s complicated.

Like the Trumpcare bills, put together in secret by 13 Senate poobahs, bypassing the committee process entirely and avoiding expert input. Followed by a crazy process on the floor.

With the House in even shakier condition, and the fundamentals of the deliberative process severely damaged, broad leadership consensus is not likely to come back for a long while. That’s not just bad for policy outcomes; it’s bad for representative democracy. I wish McCain hadn’t waited so long to raise the alarm, but his colleagues, and we, have heard his pressing truth now.

Our Sen. Lamar Alexander, though he got sidestepped by McConnell, is still working across the aisle for a bill to provide some stability for the insurance market. He understands McCain’s urgent pleas perfectly because he, too, remembers and values how to do it right. We can encourage and help him with our phone calls, emails, postcards and letters.

Apparently the health care debacle didn’t teach the Republicans a thing. True to expectation, they’ve now put forward a tax bill just as haphazardly constructed and sharply partisan, with the worst parts of it permanent.

Jennie Young of Elizabethton is a retired language arts teacher. 

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