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We Must Re-Learn How to Fight

Terry H. Schwadron

Jan. 20, 2018

One thing the awful-to-watch government death matches in Washington have reflected is that our politicians have forgotten how to debate and resolve conflicts. They don’t fight fairly.

On the one-year mark for the Trump presidency, Americans were caught in a downward spiral towards the government shutdown that started overnight by intransigence rather than flexibility, on an allegiance to ideology over human concern, and in the inevitable descent into blame hell. Watching the flailing in Congress as deadlines ticked closer was painful and felt like a communal failure.

As a result, we have interrupted government service, mounting calls for political redress on all sides, a waste of public money and loss of actual wages for military and other government families.

We were trapped between Congress, with its own factions, and a president who had trouble deciding what he was for and against and who could not communicate his feelings in any organized or persuasive way. He proved that he cannot lead others. He can only set down worn principles, and he sits back in expectation that politicians across the board simply obey.

In any event, what was painfully obvious is that “compromise” these days only means “agree with me.” All arguments, facts, information is subject to kneading and squeezing so that it only reflects one side or the other. And blame for the other side is the main point of most public statements, it seems.

In barreling toward the shutdown, certain things were clear despite the best efforts of the parties to twist them into weapons for one side or the other:

–President Trump could not seem to make clear or communicate what he would need to see in any compromise deal involving immigration to allow him to sign it. This isn’t my finding — it’s what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was saying, never mind the Democrats. Again, it was a question of “compromise” as opposed to full agreement with Trump. Over the last week, he has accepted several different responses, before returning as always to a need for a Wall.

–The references to hurting the military in a shutdown were overstated. In most respects, the actual military is exempted from shutdown, as are essential personnel in each federal agency. If the White House was going to keep national park rangers on the job, you can be sure that the military was going to keep going as normal. Instead, the shutdown could affect handling of paychecks, ancillary services in veterans’ affairs, some services for military families and the like. What would be affected even during a temporary continuing resolution are military plans for expansion, since they need a more complete budget year for adequate planning.

— In the blame assessment, a Washington Post-ABC News poll said more Americans blame Trump and Republicans than Democrats by more than 20 points. About half blame Republicans, a quarter Democrats, and less than a quarter both sides equally.

–Among the agencies, the IRS would be heavily affected by a shutdown, with more than half of employees furloughed just at the time that the government is trying to determine how to make practical the effects of the recent tax cut bills. Also making no sense were furloughs for the Centers for Disease Control in the middle of a flu epidemic.

At one point during the week, Chief of Staff John F. Kelley explained to Sen. Lindsey O. Graham Jr. (R-SC), co-author of a bipartisan agreement with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill) that their proposal was not “bipartisan” because it did not account for opinions of the most conservative members of Congress who oppose any real solution that lead to citizenship for those hundreds of thousands facing deportation with expiration of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act.

Indeed, though the president had ticked off four main attributes for any eventual compromise bill, his complaint was that the Graham-Durbin bill did not reflect them, while the authors pointed out that it had addressed each. The result was not a better bill, it was a broken set of negotiations on a budget deadline for which the president and Republicans needed Democratic support to avoid.

Much like travel ban proposals, health care, environmental rule deregulation, banking oversight and even the tax bill, the president, in particular, but more broadly, the Republican leadership, does not brook negotiation well. They simply do not want to talk about the details with anyone who does not declare loyalty to their goal at the outset.

So, both the health care issue and the tax changes that were the most contentious legislative matters for the year were basically matter to be settled within the Republican caucus, out of earshot and participation of Democrats. When it came time for voting, Democrats in turn did vote as a bloc against the measures.

The whole idea of a legislature is as a safe place to discuss and to disagree, isn’t it? Just as the role of hearings is to surface actual information from a variety of sources that might help in the creation of legislation, the discussion is to highlight the pros and cons. The politics of “compromise” is that neither side is able to dominate totally, just as no single state should dominate or one individual. Our whole government is built on checks and balances.

During the Obama years, the checks and balances were so strong that the president could get little passed in his last years. With the House, Senate and White House in the hands of one party, you would think there would be room for at least some discussion.

Instead, we have devolved into politics on the edges, even within the single Republican party. We hear talk of the Bannon faction, the Jared-Ivanka group within the White House, and in the House, every issue, especially immigration, faces a Freedom Caucus veto.

Even when there is a reliance on facts, each side is selective. When the White House, for example, does not just ignore facts, it culls them to find those that fit the narrative.

An appearance earlier this week, for example, featured a Justice Department official who defended the Trump administration’s use of a terrorism report containing contested figures to promote efforts to change the nation’s immigration system. The report, released by the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, said that 73% of the 549 individuals convicted on terrorism charges since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were born outside the United States.

The New York Times reported that” experts have disputed that figure, arguing that the report seemed to have been framed to support the White House’s proposed immigration reforms.” Those critics have taken issue with the report’s inclusion of terrorists captured overseas and extradited to the U.S. on terrorism charges in the same category as immigrants who came to the U.S. and later conducted acts of terrorism. In any event, most “terrorism” incidents in recent years in the United States have involved U.S. citizens.

It’s fair game, I suppose, but it is difficult to have faith in government when you know that it is only blind faith to one party’s goals that is on the table.


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Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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