An intriguing conversation about the next step in the fiscal drama is taking place among our elected leaders. At this early point it is mostly at an exploratory level, but it’s no less real for that.
A day after an election in which a changing electorate essentially cemented the status quo in place — re-electing the president and keeping Congress split between the two parties — the stock market swooned. Its behavior was fueled by doubt that Capitol Hill and the White House would be able to avoid the “fiscal cliff” of rising taxes and deep spending cuts slated for the end of the year. Really, though, it was more than that: like the election itself, it reflected deep skepticism about our elected leaders’ ability to address the difficult problems that confront our nation.
The market’s dive was followed almost immediately by an interesting dance between the president and Republican leaders in Congress. Where House Speaker John Boehner conceded that Republicans might accept increased tax revenues, the president said he would take a serious look at reform of entitlements. These are tantalizing signs that last year’s rigid partisan stances could soften — that flexibility, so long elusive, might have a chance of a comeback.
As they often do, the elections created an opening, a moment in political life when fundamental questions come to the fore. The question most people in Washington and many outside it are focused on is as basic as they get: Can government still work? Are political leaders capable of setting aside their differences and finding common ground?
In Congress the answer, I believe, will lie with its members, and whether they correctly read the electoral tea leaves to conclude that Americans want solutions, not obstructionism. Their mindset will be key. If the majority on Capitol Hill — whatever their party — decide to be pragmatic and cooperative, Congress may pull itself out of the swamp of disdain in which most Americans hold it. If, instead, they opt for ideology and confrontation, the dysfunction will continue.
Attitude is all-important. When members see politics as a steady quest for improving our country and our society, there’s hope. That is when they’re prepared to ignore all the forces competing for influence on Capitol Hill, and search most diligently for remedies to the scores of truly difficult issues that we need Washington to resolve.
“And there’s a politician that has read and thought,” William Butler Yeats wrote. We can only hope new and returning members of Congress will do the same — read, look clearly at the world around them and think for themselves. For the plain truth is there are too many forces conspiring to keep them from doing so: their party leaders, lobbyists, the moneyed interests that are already preparing for the next election, opinionated media personalities, constituents pursuing their own private interests, the talking points prepared for their caucuses, the frenetic pace of life in Washington, the crisis of the moment.
Yet unless politicians can find the time — and, more importantly, the inclination — to chart their own course through the thickets of policy that confront them every day, they cannot collaborate with one another to help Congress do so, too. If they’re locked in by the dictates of partisan calculation, the rigors of ideological purity, or the constant need to please funders, then those are the interests they will protect. Even if it’s at the expense of making the progress Americans so badly want them to make, and of the basic civility that allows Congress and our political system to rise above the passions of the moment.
It’s anyone’s guess how Congress will deal with this chance to start afresh. That’s up to each of its members. The pressures that drove them toward hostilities before the election haven’t gone away. But the signals being sent by political leaders suggest they understand that Americans expect flexibility and pragmatism. And the opening to take individual responsibility for political progress and set Congress on a more productive course hasn’t closed yet. It’s a gift of the elections. Let’s hope they accept it.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.