Divided we stall

After last week’s elections, a divided Congress must choose between waging a political war and finding common ground.

by Michael Rietmulder


President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress have been accused of trying to do too much. After last weekâÄôs elections, a divided Congress will spend the next two years trying to avoid doing too little.

With Republicans handily winning control of the U.S. House of Representatives and slimming the DemocratsâÄô majority in the Senate to just six seats, voters may have ushered in an era of legislative stagnation.

Not everyone is ready to write the next Congress off as ineffective, though. Despite her partyâÄôs losses, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., dropped by the University of Minnesota campus Wednesday and voiced her optimism that Democrats and Republicans could work together.

âÄúIf you look for a silver lining, we truly are going to have to move forward on a bipartisan basis,âÄù Klobuchar told a class of journalism students.

True. If the next Congress is going to get anything done, the DFL and the GOP will have to bridge the partisan divide. But in order for that to happen, Congress must undergo a seismic cultural shift.

For starters, an institution often mired by its membersâÄô bellicose behavior will need a shot of congeniality. This will be difficult unless Republican leaders replace rhetorical attacks with substantive input.

However, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellâÄôs post-election remarks at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation offer little hope of that happening. McConnell said voters sent new members to Congress with a âÄúmarching orderâÄù to âÄústop the big government freight train.âÄù

âÄúWe will stop the liberal onslaught,âÄù McConnell vowed.

But surely, the Democrats arenâÄôt the iniquitous brigade of legislative conquerors McConnell portrays them to be. Perhaps he just needs to get to know them.

In an op-ed piece published in the Washington Post, former Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., argued that more social gatherings between the two parties would ease tensions. Daschle even suggested that Obama invite congressional leaders for a weekend getaway at Camp David. I can just picture Obama and McConnell spending an afternoon together playing some bocce ball while Speaker-to-be John Boehner, R-Ohio, sits poolside working on his savage tan and Harry Reid, D-Nev., mans the grill.

More social interaction couldnâÄôt hurt, but the truth is most members can maintain cordial personal relationships. ItâÄôs the rewarding and amplifying of partisan mudslinging that must end. So, how about a moratorium on interviews with Fox News and MSNBC? These party megaphones disguised as news organizations only encourage pugnacity. Why not starve the beasts?

First, Democrats and Republicans must identify issues where they can find common ground. âÄúI think our country needs an economic agenda,âÄù Klobuchar said. âÄúThat is not only smart to bring people together politically, but it is the right policy.âÄù

With the unemployment rate just shy of 10 percent, spurring job growth will be atop the priority list. But forming a consensus on how to go about it will be difficult if Republicans donâÄôt look for solutions outside of cutting taxes.

Klobuchar emphasized that increasing exports and improving education are imperative to the United StatesâÄô continued success in an increasingly competitive global economy. She said reforming No Child Left Behind and making student loans more accessible would likely attract bipartisan support.

Another area of potential collaboration is moving toward energy independence. Obama admitted a comprehensive energy and climate bill like the one that died in the Senate earlier this year would be unlikely. âÄúBut that doesnâÄôt mean there isnâÄôt agreement that we need better energy policy,âÄù Obama said. âÄúCap and trade was just one way of skinning the cat.âÄù

McConnell said the GOP could sign off on expanding nuclear and clean coal energy production. Though unpopular in liberal circles, Obama has been warm to nuclear expansion. In February, he announced $8 billion in federal loan guarantees for the construction of a nuclear power plant in Georgia.

As for Congress, Democrats and Republicans must acknowledge the existence of a greater enemy âÄî China. The biggest challenge facing the U.S. is figuring out how to compete in a global economy in which China is its most heated rival. Some forecasts predict China will dethrone the U.S. as the worldâÄôs largest economy by 2030.

If Democrats and Republicans continue to put political infighting before effective government, the economic slide will only hasten.

Unless Congress can limit the exchange of political insults, find ways to reach true compromise and channel the fervor of political competition into meeting the challenges of competing internationally for economic prowess, America will spend the next two years running in place.

As Klobuchar put it, courage in Washington is typically defined as taking a go-it-alone approach to lawmaking. That must change.

âÄúCourage in these next two years,âÄù Klobuchar said, âÄúis going to be, I think, being willing to stand next to someone that you donâÄôt always agree with to get something done for the future of this country.âÄù

As improbable as this sentiment seems, it is not impossible.

Michael Rietmulder welcomes comments at [email protected].