In the musical “Chicago,” attorney Billy Flynn tells his guilty client that juries are swayed by entertainment, not facts. “Give ’em the old flimflam flummox. Fool and fracture ’em,” sings Billy.

Billy at least earned his pay when he razzle-dazzled the jury into acquitting Roxie Hart.

The same can’t be said for our national lawmakers. Only in Washington can you get paid for not doing your job. Most policymakers were busy in 2013 doing, well, nothing other than giving us the old flimflam flummox.

Consider the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Republicans have made the ACA a referendum on the competence of President Obama. For their part, congressional Democrats distract us with the false claim that the GOP is playing politics and have no health solutions of their own. Meanwhile, Democrats stand mostly silent when President Obama announces delays and waivers while simultaneously threatening to veto any legislation designed to do the same thing.

Both sides ignore the real question they should be asking: “What’s next?” With or without the ACA, the cost of health care is unsustainable, especially in an aging society. And, sadly, the real solutions aren’t easy. More competition among insurers, as Republicans argue, or more government intervention, as Democrats propose, offer little, if any, relief on costs. What we need instead of a flimflam debate is an honest dialogue about steps that would achieve cost savings.

Reducing the cost of care for chronic illnesses by promoting prevention; paying only for procedures that are proven to work, and cutting back on the obscene amounts of money spent in the last weeks and months of our lives are just the beginning of the steps that will ultimately be needed. The longer we are distracted by political razzle-dazzle, though, the more intractable the cost challenge becomes.

It seems our national legislative bodies simply aren’t equal to the task of substantive consideration of controlling health costs or any issue, from welfare reform to tax policy to immigration. Most agree on that much. In fact, the only real mystery in the 10 percent approval rating Congress has among voters is who are the one in 10 people who think Congress is doing a good job?

Republicans and Democrats blame partisan politics for Congress’ failures. But, like vampires, they don’t see their own images when they walk past mirrors. Without a trace of irony, politicians from both parties say they want to work across the aisle, but it’s the other side that won’t work with them. Fool and fracture ’em.

Yes, Congress is broken. But upending the basic rules as Democrats did when they exercised the so-called “nuclear option” to allow some presidential nominees to be approved without the threat of filibusters ignores the real problems plaguing Congress. The ever-growing rivers of money flowing through politics; members who never stop campaigning, and redistricting that creates too many safe congressional seats are among the many significant — and ignored — contributors to the breakdown of Congress.

We citizens can stand by and watch public policy being treated like bad entertainment, or we can take action. Here are a few suggested New Year’s Resolutions.

• Resolve to be more open to the thought that the other side may have a legitimate point of view. That means listening to interest groups with a skeptical ear. Interest groups are designed to promote a position and too often do so in inflammatory ways. Seldom do they advocate a middle ground. Yet, most solutions are not found on the extremes.

• Resolve to question your own legislators. Challenge them to prove that they are able to meet the other side partway. Hard-core partisanship leads to gridlock. Look for evidence that your legislator understands that sometimes half a loaf is better than no loaf at all.

• Resolve to be more civil in your personal approach to politics — and be consistent in demanding that candidates keep it clean. Too often we only object to negative campaigning when it is coming from those on the other side of the political aisle or issue. We need to also be willing to criticize candidates we otherwise support when they cross the line into incivility.

• Finally, resolve to donate time and money only to candidates who demonstrate that they can be part of the solution — and, in November, vote accordingly. Maybe then we will elect a Congress that earns its pay by engaging in serious policy work instead of rhetorical razzle-dazzle.


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.