Friday, December 23, 2016

Bipartisanship: How The GOP Could Heal A Divided Nation

Politics Is Power. . .with a capital “P” and that rhymes with “P” and that stands for POWER. . .

Cherry picking and altering a few lines from the 1962 American musical film classic, Music Man, starring Robert Preston as Professor Harold Hill:

Friend, either you're closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated . . . ya got trouble right here in the U.S.A. . . We've surely got trouble! Right here in the U.S.A! Remember the Maine, Plymouth Rock and the Golden Rule! Oh, we've got trouble. We're in terrible, terrible trouble. [See the real lyrics]

Okay, maybe the analogy between politics and pool in the Music Man is not perfect, but I’m trying to make a point here. Whether you want to believe it or not there is a serious political divide in this country that is threatening to rip it apart.

As a somewhat humorous aside, but truly related; I stumbled upon a 2015 song by the great Willie Nelson and the late, great Merle Haggard, that captures the feeling of about half of the country:

“Well, it’s all going to pot
Whether we like it or not
The best I can tell
The world’s gone to hell
And we’re sure gonna miss it a lot. . .” [
access the video]

Seriously, although 52% of Republican voters think Donald Trump won the popular vote (see article) – he didn’t. . . and that’s a fact – he lost by nearly 3 million votes (2,864,978 as of 12/15/16). To make it clear, that means that out of all the citizens of the United States that cast their ballots in the latest Presidential election and did their duty as Americans, almost 3 million more voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump to be the 45th President and almost 54% of those that voted, did not vote for Donald Trump. 

We have to start looking at facts, not rhetoric; and try to understand what it means:

·        A December 19, 2016, a Gallup poll shows that 57% of adult Americans approve of the job that President Barack Obama is doing
·        The same day, a Rasmussen Reports poll indicates 56% of Americans think the country is on the “wrong track”
·        Also on the same day, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found 54 percent of adults saying that they are either uncertain (25 percent) or pessimistic and worried (29 percent) about how Trump will perform during his presidency [access the NBC poll]
·        On December 16, 2016, a Gallup poll indicates 78% of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing [access the first three polls here]

From the above facts, it seems fairly obvious that most Americans think the country is on the wrong track, they approve of the job President Obama has done, they are concerned and cautious about a Donald Trump presidency and they are really dissatisfied with the job that Congress has done.

So as Professor Harold Hill says, “either you're closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated” if you chose to ignore these facts. Yes, Donald Trump won the Electoral College vote (See previous post) and according to the rules of the game under which we are playing now, he is undisputedly the new President of the United States; BUT, under no circumstance can President-elect Trump or the Republican Party claim that they have a mandate to exercise their political will.

To claim such a mandate would be to blatantly and shamelessly ignore the facts and to put party, power and politics above good government and to intentionally exacerbate the already deeply divided general public.

According to the rules, the GOP has all the political power – House, Senate and Executive Office – but by all counts, a razor thin margin in nationwide political divide. There is now a clear choice as to how it uses that power – to heal the nation or further divide it.

It’s not enough to simply say: “Democrats get over it. You lost. Buck up and move on.” Well, I guess that’s the simplistic solution. But that solution is not going to heal a deeply divided nation.

It’s become a game played by both parties. “I win. Now you’re going to play by my rules and you’re going to pay for what you did to me.” The excuse for being mean is, “You did it to me, so I’m doing it to you. . . If you can do it, so can I.” [See previous post, Gridlock Games: "If you can do it, so can I. . ."This is the childish game being played inside the Beltway. All the while ignoring the facts of how deeply divided the nation is – let’s call it 50-50.

The more we continue to play the foolish game and advocate “my way or the highway” solutions that ignore the beliefs of half of the country, the more the general public becomes frustrated, angry and distrustful of the process that can’t resolve the pressing problems of the day. That’s why the Congressional approval rating is around 20% -- on a good day.

Now the Electoral College has elected a new President and the expectation is that everything will change. But the old President had a 57% approval rating and the new one has something like a 46% approval rating. For sure we are going to see change, but was it really the President that was making people think we were on the wrong track?

What about Congress with their 20% approval rating? Unfortunately, they appear to be off and rerunning the same old playbook. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has recently become a giddy supporter of Donald Trump after being an outspoken critic for months. Ryan, like a kid in a candy store with a pocket full of money, seems anxious to dust off all those Republican bills that were rejected when that mean old President Obama was in office. Knowing full well that those bills will not be acceptable to about half of the country, he’s ready to move quickly during the first 100 days to pass as many as possible.

He was recently quoted in the Washington Times saying, “We intend on delivering, and we’re going to make sure that this is the most productive Congress we’ve seen in a long, long time. I’m confident that, as people understand the way the legislative process works, they will see that we are going to be hitting the ground running.” [See article]

Among the promises are getting rid of air, water and climate change regulations; increasing oil and gas production on public lands; finally repealing the Affordable Care Act (Obama Care); cutting funding for Planned Parenthood; tax breaks for the wealthy; restarting the coal industry; cutting clean energy funding and programs; and many more highly controversial programs.

Here we go again. I’m not saying the Democrats wouldn’t do the same if the table was turned; but, I am reminded about the definition of insanity – you know “over and over again.” We actually have a choice and right now Republicans are in power and could actually change course. Recognizing the reality of a sharply divided electorate where the losing candidate actually received almost 3 million more votes than the winner, we could try something new – call it an experiment to reflect the changing times and the current political reality. If it produces better results maybe we could continue it.

So, is there one thing that could be done to really heal this divided nation and at the same time bring about government reform that would lead to better governance? Something that would acknowledge the differences between party principles, yet respect the participants on both sides of the aisle? An idea that could be implemented without a Constitutional amendment or even a new law. A solution completely within the Legislative branch of government that could be  implemented immediately with just political will; and political will means power and the Republicans have it all.

This proposal is radical, but these are radical times. The nation is more divided than it has ever been and the traditional methods of operation in Congress have broken down to the point of being dysfunctional and unable to address the critical issues of our time. It is time for radical solutions that can truly make a difference. If radical measures are not taken, or at least tried, we will face further gridlock and deeper divisions and unrest of all Americans.

What better time to try a new approach than when the elected President loses the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes and there is no clear political mandate. To ignore this reality and carry on business as usual is grossly irresponsible and an insult to the American public.

Bipartisanship is a word that is used a lot in politics. The generalized definition is:

 “a political situation, especially in the context of a two-party system in which opposing political parties find common ground through compromise.”

It’s a great concept and certainly what is needed in these troubling times.

Most often the term is touted in the context of bipartisan legislation or proposals to solve critical problems where the majority party manages to get the agreement of one or a few members of the minority party and the bill or idea is claimed to have bipartisan support – even though it is widely opposed by most of the minority party. This is phony or fake bipartisanship.

True bipartisanship is where legislation or proposals are developed within the context of a completely level playing field and advanced with near majority support from both parties, i.e. real compromise.

To get to the underpinnings of Congressional gridlock and disingenuous bipartisanship you must look deep down in into sausage factory of government where laws are made and issues are debated. It starts with the multitude of House and Senate Committees (21 in each house) and further down with the many Subcommittees (over 150).

The legislative subcommittees and committees are where the laws and solutions are developed and where executive agencies are monitored through oversight. Under current rules, this is where bipartisanship gets off to a false start. The subcommittees and committees are ruled by a majority party chairperson and the membership always assures a majority party control. Therefore all actions at this very basic level of solution development are under the strict control of the majority party.

For example, the powerful House Energy & Commerce Committee is currently chaired by Representative Fred Upton (R-MI). The Committee includes 31 Republican members and 23 Democratic members. There are six separate subcommittees. A typical subcommittee, the Environment & Economy Subcommittee is chaired by Representative John Shimkus (R-IL). The Subcommittee includes 12 Republican members and 8 Democratic members. Thus, all environmental issues that are considered in the House of Representatives begin their journey first in the Subcommittee and then the full Committee and are completely controlled by the Chairmen of these bodies and all matters are decided where the majority party has a significant voting advantage.

The committee and subcommittee level is where specific legislative language is developed, staff research is done, experts are consulted, hearings and public meetings are held, witnesses and interest groups testify and votes are taken to move things forward. This is where lobbyists and interest groups have their greatest influence because they are dealing with fewer legislators that they must win over to their point of view. In the above example, lobbyist and interest groups concerned about environmental matters can focus intense efforts on the Committee chairman and 12 Republican members of the environment Subcommittee that basically control environmental matters in the House.

Although House and Senate rules provide some concessions to the minority party, the bottom line is that they have no real control over the agenda, they are provided less budget and staff resources, witness testimony is lopsided in favor of the majority, and most importantly they are out-voted and out-maneuvered on all differing positions.

This is why legislative proposals and agency oversight are most often one-sided. This is why committee hearings are generally more of a sideshow rather than an objective information exchange and airing of different points of view. This is why lobbyists and special interests are able to exercise undue influence over the process. And finally, this is why ill-conceived legislative proposals that ignore large sections of the population arrive on the House and Senate floor. Likewise, it is the reason that legislative oversight of executive agencies turn into partisan witch hunts and character assassinations of agency personnel rather than an effective review of agency programs, budgets and actions.

With a simple act of Republican Party will and power in the House and Senate, this situation could change if the rules of committee and subcommittee operations were amended to provide equal co-chairs, equal majority and minority membership, and equal budget and staff.

This one fundamental change in business as usual would completely alter the legislative process dynamics by filtering the issues to be addressed to the most important ones and forcing compromise at the very beginning of the legislative process. It would assure that both sides – majority and minority parties – had an equal and fair hand in developing proposals and solutions to address the critical issues of the day and the reality of a politically divided population. Proposal and solutions, developed in the true spirit of compromise, could include the best ideas of both sides and avoid the sharp differences and conflicts that further divide the nation.

The operating procedures and details for such a change would have to be adopted in rules of the House and Senate but could be somewhat on the order of a Conference Committee which is a standard Congressional process to resolve differences between House and Senate versions of a legislative bill. Additionally, there is a ready-made model for shared power committee operations in the House and Senate Ethics Committees. These are unique committees where membership is evenly divided between each political party and unlike other committees, the day-to-day work of the committees are conducted by staff that is nonpartisan by rule.

In conclusion it is noted that the idea of shared power runs counter to the instinctive DNA of most politicians. The basic goal of political dynamics is to acquire power and use it to achieve ideological objectives. As sad as it may be, those objectives rarely include better governance.

While the party in power could institute reforms to heal a deeply divided nation the odds are not good. As I have discussed before politicians and Washington insiders cannot be expected to change the system for the better because all parties benefit and take advantage of the destructive mechanisms depending on who’s in power at any given time. If reform proposals are ever implemented it will most likely require something on the order of a public revolution with intense public pressure as well as strategic and coordinated involvement of the many public interest and reform organizations that are focused on these issues.
[See list of Tools for Democracy in the side panel]