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Compromise has become the lost art of politics

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Print this page by Robert Powell

The impasse appears hopeless.

“The longer the stalemate drags on, the greater the cynicism and the less anyone of either side will be able to speak … with any credibility.”

That quote was from an essay by Dennis E. Ross in The New York Times about the prospects for a “two-state solution” settling the long-running conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

The same phrase could aptly describe the entrenched positions of President Obama and congressional Republicans before the March 1 deadline for the beginning of sequestration ($85 billion in automatic federal budget cuts this year).

The lack of movement on either side made me wonder: Will we see peace in the Middle East before we have a deficit reduction agreement in Washington?
The art of compromise is out of favor in today’s politics. Instead of being seen as a tool for making tough decisions, compromise is scorned as a sign of lack of dedication to a higher cause.

Politicians fear that giving ground on an issue emboldens opposition, not from the rival party but from their own party. Because of the egregious redistricting process that follows every national Census, most congressmen and legislators are ensconced in “safe” districts and face no threat in the general election. Their greatest fear is a challenge from the fringes on their party, on the far left or far right, in a primary decided by a handful of one-issue diehards.

In an atmosphere like this, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that no deal was reached on sequestration before March 1. (As this issue goes to press, Obama and congressional leaders have begun informal meetings as a first step toward a “grand bargain” on deficit reduction, but no breakthrough has been reported.)
Virginia is especially vulnerable to the effects of sequestration because federal spending represents about a third of the state economy.  Last year, the federal government awarded $54.6 billion in contracts in the Old Dominion, according to Bloomberg Government.

Christine Chmura, the president and chief economist with Chmura Economics & Analytics in Richmond, says the automatic cuts could push Virginia into a recession costing more than 200,000 jobs.

Many Virginians believe the federal government needs to reduce spending. But the across-the-board, meat-ax approach “was designed to be stupid,” Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman said on MSNBC. “The whole point was, this was supposed to be a doomsday device that would force the [Democratic and Republican] parties to reach an agreement. Of course, they didn’t, and here it goes.”

One Virginia defense contractor, Jeffrey D. Wassmer, president and CEO of Spectrum in Newport News, says the politicians have to stop treating sequestration like a political football.  “Campaigning is one thing, but execution and government is another thing,” he says. “These guys have to find ways to compromise. Look at our statehouse. We passed a transportation bill by not everybody getting what they wanted. That same attitude has to exist in Washington.”

The first legislation making a significant boost in transportation funding in 27 years came during this year’s General Assembly, when a bipartisan bill was passed at the last minute. It promises to raise $880 million a year, largely through new taxes and fees.  The bill began with a proposal by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell to eliminate Virginia’s gasoline tax and increase the state sales tax to replenish the commonwealth’s dwindling transportation coffers. 

Action came, some say, because Virginia’s transportation woes have begun to tarnish its much ballyhooed reputation as a good place to do business. The commonwealth recently slipped from first to third in an annual ranking of top states by CNBC because of its crumbling infrastructure. The Washington-Northern Virginia area has the worst traffic congestion in the nation and traffic tie-ups throughout the state cost motorists $3.7 billion a year, according to the Texas Transportation Institute.

A transportation funding solution had evaded the grasp of five governors since the last comprehensive bill was passed during the administration of Gov. Gerald Baliles back in 1986. McDonnell took office in 2010 pledging to fix the problem without raising taxes. During the past three years, he exhausted a list of potential alternatives. Most of them, like an attempt to raise money by selling the state’s ABC stores, fizzled in the General Assembly. Others that did win approval, such as issuing bonds for road projects, did not provide the consistent revenue stream the commonwealth needs.

The final deal, which McDonnell was expected to sign, won the endorsement of the bond rating agency Moody’s Investors Services and the approval of many business groups.

McDonnell sees the transportation bill as the major accomplishment of his administration.  But some conservatives are determined to make sure that legacy is a curse, especially if the governor has any presidential ambitions. 

The Patriot Super PAC, a tea party group, has begun running television ads attacking McDonnell in Iowa, whose caucuses will lead off the 2016 presidential campaign.  “McDonnell promised Virginians he would not raise taxes, but as governor he has now backed the largest tax increase in Virginia history on retail, gasoline, property, cars, land and more,” the ad says. “So, if Bob McDonnell comes to Iowa, remember: You can’t believe a word he says.”
No attempt at compromise goes unpunished, a situation that leaves politicians in safe seats and government in gridlock. 


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