Friday, December 08, 2006

Cooperation or Confrontation?
When The Voters Take Charge of the Political Environment

(This editorial by Lee Hamilton applies to Washington but is equally important as Oklahoma begins our 2nd century as a state with a 24-24 tie in the State Senate. I particularly like his idea that it's how you use your power as much as what you do with it. Hamilton served in the U.S. House of Representatives and recently cochaired the Iraq Study Group. He's involved with civic education and civic engagement initiatives that I have the privilege of being involved with also. Please read his most recent thoughts about civility and the political climate we now have.)

One of the oldest tricks in the political playbook is to cite the results of congressional elections as proof that the American people want X or reject Y, in accordance with the speaker’s own view of the world.

So it has been — at least, in Washington — with this year’s voting. Americans want out of Iraq, say various commentators, or have grown tired of President Bush and of the last few years’ congressional shenanigans. No, say others, they are angry at Republicans for violating conservative fiscal principles, or simply fell for a few middle-of-the-road Democrats in traditionally “red” states.

The truth is, election results are built on the individual decisions of millions of people voting for or against hundreds of different candidates, and sweeping generalizations are always risky. In every election there are two elections: the actual voting, and what the politicians say the voters meant. But as January approaches, and with it the transition from Republican to Democratic rule on Capitol Hill, both parties might at least want to remember that voters had something more than policy issues on their minds: They wanted change in the political environment on Capitol Hill.

Congressional majorities get overly cocky and sometimes forget that Congress is, after all, the people’s legislature. The Democrats did this during the 1980s and 1990s, and were chided for it by the voters in 1994, when they lost their majority. The Republicans did it over the last decade, and paid the price in November. If there was a clear message from the voters, I believe it had less to do with policy than an overall perception that they didn’t like the way Congress was performing. It’s a reminder for both parties that how you use power can be just as important to the American people as what you accomplish with it.

This is a bracing facet of our democracy. There were plenty of people within the halls of Congress who were discomfited in recent years by how it operated, but, because they were in the minority or were not part of the leadership, they were powerless to do much about it. Instead, it fell to the voters to force change in Congress.

In doing so, they have created a new dynamic on Capitol Hill, a sense of optimism and a belief that old foes can start anew. So there is a tremendous opportunity at the moment to heal some of the breaches that developed in recent years — to construct a Congress that is genuinely bipartisan, that upholds time-tested legislative processes designed to give a voice to the manifold interests in this diverse nation, and that behaves like an institution proud of its independent constitutional role.

The voters have handed political leaders — not just in Congress, but in the White House as well — an opportunity to make progress on issues critical to the nation by serving as uniters, not dividers; by taking the path of cooperation, not confrontation; and by understanding that if anything over the next two years is to get done by a Republican president and a narrowly Democratic Congress, it will have to be by appealing to the middle ground.

If they do, then I believe any number of issues that in recent years have seemed intractable will turn out to be resolvable — if not in one fell swoop, then at least in increments.

So, for instance, we may be unable to balance our budget at once, but we can certainly put national finances on a more sustainable path. There is clearly central ground on immigration questions that can be enlarged and turned into successful legislation. Health care, energy conservation, the environment — all of these are issues upon which legislators of good will with a willingness to compromise can make progress. Even in a controversial arena like tax reform, a Congress and a president determined to work together can at least clean up the tax code, strengthen tax collection, and remove inequities and loopholes that all agree have long needed addressing.

I don’t believe for a moment that cooperation is the only path open to our leaders. They could just as easily fall back on the tired habit of confrontation. If this happens, with a slender majority of one party in Congress and a president of the other in the White House, then we face two years of stalemate.

I prefer to hope that the recent election will instead work to cleanse Washington of the bad blood and politics of accusation and resentment that have characterized it in recent years, and encourage our leaders to resolve to turn over a new leaf.

Certainly that is the tone that both the President and congressional leaders have been adopting since the election. If they live up to their rhetoric, then the new sense of energy and purpose that American voters gave to Capitol Hill on Election Day should yield benefits we all can enjoy.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

No comments: