We are treated this week to the news that federal politicians of both parties are quite often unable to discuss issues like adults. The quasi-shutdown of the government is the inevitable result of two groups trying very hard to disagree.
By Tuesday's deadline, the Democratic Senate and Republican House were unable to agree on a temporary budget extension. While some news stations treated this as if it were some sort of apocalyptic end of civilization, the truth is slightly less scary. Programs deemed essential — necessary for security, the protection of property, and most major entitlement programs — operate unabated. More than 80 percent of federal employees will still be on the job.
Nonetheless, the country will operate for a brief period without a budget for the first time in 17 years. Although it's worth noting that in the 20 years before that there were 17 shutdowns.
The fight between the House and Senate was about whether the next temporary budget (Congress has trouble actually budgeting, so we need lots of temporary budgets) should fund Obamacare. Bills in Congress are generally laden with all sorts of unrelated items, partly as a sort of compromise. To get you to support my idea, we add it into a bill with something else you may care about.
There is no obvious general rule about whether legislatures, federal or state, should govern this way. In divided governments of the sort we have in both Washington and Concord today, some sort of negotiation is necessary and the final product will rarely be ideal for both sides.
Politicians tend to want as narrow a bill as possible if they believe their opponent can be forced by circumstance to accept something he doesn't really want. I am fond of quoting Margaret Thatcher's compelling lament about consensus: "To me consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects."
The difficulty in finding so-called consensus is just as Thatcher described. Generally, I expect you to abandon what you believe in so that we can do some subset of what I want. I don't want compromise, I want to get a lot and give up nothing.
The debate over how narrowly constructed a bill should be is that sort of consensus-seeking. Quite often a politician insisting on a clean bill is just as intransigent as one trying to add his pet project to the bill. There is one thing I want to do, and I won't entertain a discussion of anything else.
Sometimes, a political or policy debate occurs in a cleaner environment. At the state level, gambling is one of the issues. Gambling doesn't have to happen. Not doing it today doesn't forestall the option of doing it in the future. There isn't a window of opportunity we miss, so that debate tends to be self-contained.
Things like budgets and debt ceilings are different. At the federal level, there is a fixed deadline that causes a rush. It can be used by both sides. One side can insist on dealing with other issues important to it in exchange for avoiding the latest fiscal cliff. The other side, because there is another deadline, can refuse the other discussion and insist that no other issues be allowed in.
If there is to be a deal, the deal probably can't be clean. But it also can't be a hostage negotiation where one side is asked to accept things it can't possibly agree to or to which it is fundamentally opposed.
When both sides are relishing a fight, sometimes the honest deal gets lost. Republicans are eager to fight the next election on the very unpopular Obamacare law, so they continually inject it into the debate. Democrats refuse to consider anything because they think the partial shutdown will be blamed on Republicans and distract from the unpopular Obamacare. Each side thinks it is served by its current course of action.
Ideally, every bill would be narrow and discretely focused, with no gamesmanship. But that's impossible in a world of divided government. A good compromise would include something we each want that doesn't violate fundamental principles. Sadly, the usual path is the one Margaret Thatcher feared, and we only agree on the futility of the final product.
Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord. His email address is email@example.com.