The Beltway Stalemate

Source: The Wall Street Journal

The debate about military action in Syria seems over for now, and Washington is back in campaign mode. We have a president who seems to have nothing but disdain for those who disagree with him, who forsakes no opportunity to attack congressional Republicans, and who is in full agreement with congressional Democrats that government is the key to creating jobs, prosperity and equality. We have Republicans who feel they cannot trust the president, are more dubious than ever of the government’s ability to make the right decisions, and who think such decisions belong instead with individuals, families and businesses. What we don’t have is much in the way of an incentive, or even a desire, to compromise.

To a certain extent, this friction reflects the overall coarsening of discourse, but much of it results from the fact that the parties differ so much in their views about how the world works, and those views seem to drift further apart every congressional term. The anti-ObamaCare backlash in the 2010 midterm elections drove many moderate Democrats from office, moving the Democratic caucus to the left. The tea-party influence and efforts by groups like the Club for Growth to fund conservative Republicans have moved the Republican caucus to the right. In an environment of attack ads and 24-hour cable-news bickering and blustering, few Democrats or Republicans want to make any concession to the other party.

At times like this, it is almost impossible for policies and legislation to be evaluated on the merits. That’s obviously not an environment conducive to reasoned decision-making. It’s a shame, because there are significant policy issues that could be successfully resolved if we could just strip away Washington’s nonstop campaign mentality and combative nature.

The largest of these issues is the future of ObamaCare. Any clear-eyed thinking would show that ObamaCare needs to be, at the least, delayed. The law has always suffered from its usurpation of the physician-patient relationship, its infringement on First Amendment freedoms of Christian businesses and entities, and its stifling of the innovation and flexibility our health-care system needs. We now see the Obama administration unilaterally delaying parts of the law, Congress working to ensure members and their staffs are not burdened by the new rules, and concerns that ObamaCare computer systems will be unready for the enrollment that starts in a few days. We continue to find “glitches,” price shocks and other surprises throughout the legislation and its related rules.

ObamaCare really is the train wreck we’ve feared, and a nonpartisan Congress would work together to delay it, fix it, or replace it. Unfortunately, Republicans have so far failed to articulate a market-based alternative, and Democrats fall into two camps—one that truly believes in government control of health care and one that refuses to abandon ship for fear of how it would look to admit their error in ramming through the legislation in 2010.

Tax reform is another area where our nation needs progress, but partisan differences seem to stand in the way. There is broad support in Washington for the theory of tax reform, but the parties are miles apart on the specifics. The White House and congressional Democrats think of tax reform as a way to increase taxes, especially on “the rich,” while Republicans want a broader tax base and lower rates. Democrats want to increase and reallocate the tax burden, but Republicans want to remove disincentives for job creation and shrink the burden for all by growing the economy, which they think will happen by making the tax code more efficient.

Almost all the significant issues requiring action in Washington show similar fault lines between the parties. Whether addressing spending control, entitlement reform, gun control, education or energy policy, the White House and congressional Democrats want government in control of the major decisions, while Republicans want individuals, families and businesses interacting in a market to make the decisions.

A study of history, economics and sociology would show that the Republican push for individual responsibility and market-based choice, while never yielding perfect outcomes, is the better approach. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely the White House or the Democrats, clinging to their view of government as decision-maker and allocator of resources, will ever agree. Nor do Republicans, who control but one house of Congress, have much power to force the issue. With the parties so far apart in their beliefs, it seems the only way to see movement in Washington is by changing the partisan mix of officeholders. It does not hurt to be reminded every once in a while that elections matter.