If Congress won't lead, others must

  • Article by: TIM PENNY and TOM HORNER
  • Updated: October 5, 2013 - 5:07 PM

We need thoughtful debate, and clearly it won’t come from Washington.

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Riley Marulis, 13, left, and her brother, Jackson, 11, hold signs at the steps of the Capitol in response to the fifth day of the government shutdown in Washington, Oct. 5, 2013. Lawmakers prepared to work through a second weekend on Saturday with a House Republican strategy of passing a series of smaller spending measures on popular topics in an effort to pressure Democrats to reopen at least portions of the government.

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Here we are again, watching as our national leaders engage in another fiscal fistfight. Partisan rancor, sadly, is now hard-wired into our political system.

According to political analyst Charles Cook, out of 435 congressional districts, there are “only 17 Republicans sitting in districts Obama carried, and only nine Democrats sitting in districts Romney carried.” The number of so-called split-ticket districts was far higher when we served in Washington two decades ago. In the ensuing years, increasingly, “gerrymandered” districts created seats that are safe for one party. The result is a decreased likelihood that moderates will ever be elected — and that only exacerbates partisan behavior.

In this highly toxic environment, it is hard to see how any long-term consensus can be reached, especially on budget issues where the two parties are poles — and polls — apart. If we learned nothing else last week, it is that it’s no longer reasonable to expect members of Congress to be problem-solvers. The budget impasse is just act one in a drama that will be on stage for a long time to come.

A full-fledged debate over the appropriate role of government at the beginning of the 21st century is overdue. However, instead of a thoughtful discussion that explores legitimate ideological differences regarding the size and role of government, we hear only each side blaming the other. Republicans cry out for Obamacare’s demise (hint: Obama has a veto pen), while Democrats loudly decry every attempt by Republicans to cut spending (hint: there aren’t enough rich taxpayers to pay all our bills).

The need for balanced solutions is too important to leave to the partisans in Congress yet too urgent to ignore. One of the great strengths of our country is the balance of power shared by families, government, businesses and nonprofits, including the faith community. When one of these institutions is failing, we should look for leadership elsewhere. Business organizations can start by no longer echoing the Republicans’ no-new-taxes mantra. Instead, they can lead on comprehensive tax reform. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, has proposed a tax overhaul that would promote investment and reward people for working. Among other features, Lee offers a $2,500-per-child tax credit against either income or payroll taxes (Medicare and Social Security) owed by a working family. The proposal recognizes that those in Mitt Romney’s 47 percent still pay significant federal taxes even if they owe no income taxes. More than that, it recognizes that we can no longer pay lip service to the importance of strong families. We need to invest in the ability of families to succeed.

Lee’s proposal is far from perfect, but it’s a good start. The revenue calculations still are being done, but it’s likely that some taxes will be increased in order to reduce others. Some business leaders (particularly those active in the Fix the Debt campaign) have embraced tax reform principles similar to those embodied in the Lee plan. We need their strong voices and the voices of other business­people to lead the discussion. Otherwise, we are left to the context created by Grover Norquist and other antitax crusaders.

Similarly, let’s ask organized labor to step forward to propose new ways to address the spending side of the federal budget, starting with health care. Obamacare on its own doesn’t solve the health care crisis. It promotes broader access but offers little cost control. However, throwing it out without an alternative — as Republicans have tried to do — is the wrong approach. And, asking for an exemption, as unions have done, is also wrongheaded.

The groundwork for a labor-inspired health care solution might be in a statement four years ago issued jointly by the leaders of the Service Employees International Union and Wal-Mart, Inc. Their 2009 letter to President Obama made the case for expanding access, including an employer mandate that doesn’t act as a barrier to hiring entry-level workers. Significantly, the letter also argues for the importance of controlling health costs, rightly asserting that “health care reform without controlling costs is no reform at all.”

The encouraging news is that innovative public policies are emerging to address America’s critical challenges. But these ideas are primarily being developed and implemented by grass-roots organizations, nonprofits, faith communities, business and labor groups. In other words, outside of government.

Eventually, Washington will find its way. But in our view, when politicians finally get serious, the path will have been paved by other foundational institutions that are offering true leadership.

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Tom Horner is a public-affairs consultant and was chief of staff to former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn. Tim Penny is president and CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and is a former Democratic member of Congress. Both are former Independence Party candidates for governor.

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