Letter: ‘Where’s the common ground?’ 

Our Castleton neighbor Evelyn Kerr accuses the President and the Senate of being “hostage takers” because they refused to negotiate with Republicans who demanded the effective repeal of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, as the price of keeping the federal government open.

Ms. Kerr defends our representative Robert Hurt, who has made similar charges. Hurt’s Oct. 23 open letter to constituents states that, “the President and the Senate have succeeded in defeating every single House proposal for reform and defeating every single House effort to reopen the federal government during recent weeks.”

Since I had sent an email to Hurt critical of the shutdown, Hurt responded to me with a letter stating: “I agree with you that a partial government shutdown was not desired . . . prior to the shutdown, I supported four separate continuing resolutions to fully fund the federal government . . .”

Wow, I thought, Mr. Hurt agrees with me? I checked how he voted on the key resolution to fund the government, the one that finally ended the government shutdown. He voted against it.

Ms. Kerr and Mr. Hurt are residents of a parallel universe where those who launch an attack claim it is they who were the victims; they distort exchanges between lawmakers and cherry pick the constitutional rights and responsibilities they like while ignoring those they don’t.

Their universe is a place where a slender majority of the House of Representatives believes it can and should block a law passed by both houses of Congress and signed by a president; where refusal by the Senate and the President to negotiate under a threat of a government-wide shutdown constitutes “defeating . . . reform and . . . every single House effort to reopen the federal government”; and where Rep. Hurt can claim to support government funding and agree that a shutdown was “not desired,” when he voted against ending it.

As Ms. Kerr notes, the Constitution states that spending bills must originate in the House. And in fact that chamber has used its leverage to block specific activities like family planning by federal agencies when it could get the Senate to go along. But it’s another thing entirely to say that the House can shutter any large part of the government it dislikes.

The Affordable Care Act was approved by both houses and signed by the President. It is a law. Its individual mandate to get health insurance (originally a Republican idea) has been upheld by a conservative U.S. Supreme Court. Its funding must be approved by both houses, and since the Senate does not want it stymied or delayed, the two houses should resolve their differences in conference, without threatening mayhem to the rest of the federal government.

Rep. Hurt and Ms. Kerr imply that was all the House wanted, but that’s not the way the shutdown happened. The House resolutions funded the entire government only if the Affordable Care Act was killed or delayed; so after the Senate balked at negotiating under such a threat, most of the government shut down for lack of funds. For weeks, the House refused to even consider a “clean” continuing resolution to keep the government operating without conditions. The House also refused, until the eleventh hour, to allow the government to borrow to pay its bondholders, risking global economic catastrophe. Depending on which Republican you listened to, that borrowing power was withheld as a bargaining chip either for blocking Obamacare or for spending cuts.

Not all Republicans supported these ploys. For weeks, it appeared a majority of the House — all the Democrats and a minority of Republicans — was prepared to extend the debt limit and restart the government without conditions. Speaker of the House John Boehner refused to bring such measures to a vote because a majority of his Republican caucus — not a majority of the House — rejected them.

When he finally did bring them to a vote, they passed with bipartisan support; but over the continued opposition from most Republicans, including our Rep. Hurt. These people who pushed our country to the brink of collapse have tried to blame anybody else. But opinion polls show it was clear to most of the country who was taking hostages, and it was not the President or the Senate.

What we have seen here is a failure to communicate honestly, to work within the norms of constitutional government, or even to adhere to one of the prime tenets of democracy: majority rules. Now that the government has restarted and the debt crisis has been deferred for a few months, our lawmakers have a very short period to start finding common ground. That will be exceedingly difficult, given the polarization of the electorate, the gerrymandering of congressional districts and the potential for House Republicans to shutter the government again if they don’t get what they want.

President Obama has shown a willingness to meet the opposition halfway. He has talked of spending cuts paired with tax increases, despite objections of liberal Democrats. He has invited critics to propose ways to make the Affordable Care Act work better. But most Republicans have allowed themselves to be painted into a corner of no-new-tax pledges and implacable opposition to Obamacare.

Where’s the common ground? Both sides have pulled back from a grand bargain, and each has extremists fighting to prevent one, particularly in the GOP. Speaker Boehner knows that if he signs a deal, he could be deposed. Safely gerrymandered, Rep. Hurt may worry about a Tea Party challenge if he shows flexibility.

I hope that Ms. Kerr and Rep. Hurt will join me in calling for good faith negotiation and willingness on both sides to compromise. The Affordable Care Act will be difficult to roll out and no doubt will need some fixing. We need to resolve long-term fiscal problems, which will require added taxes as well as cuts in spending.

Any officeholders who support a compromise risk being ousted by absolutists from the far left or right. So a grand bargain may be impossible in the 2014 election year, and even more challenging in the three months before the next debt and funding deadlines.

The Constitution provides a way to solve such dilemmas. The parties can elect people that share their views. If either party wins both houses of Congress, it will have an opportunity to enact solutions. If Obamacare flops and Republicans romp in the 2014 elections, they can repeal Obamacare — without shutting down the entire government. If Democrats win, they could fix any problems with the Affordable Care Act and try to enact much-needed immigration reform. If neither party controls both houses, any progress will require some bipartisan compromise.

So Ms. Kerr, please vote next Tuesday and again a year from now. I will. With any luck the people we elect will show a willingness to compromise to make our government function effectively. That’s supposed to be how our representative democracy works. My vote will not go to Mr. Hurt, who was willing to shut down the entire government to roll back a law that his party lacks the votes to repeal, and who has implied he opposed a shutdown, even though he voted at a critical juncture to prolong it.

Rob Taylor
Castleton

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