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.
Where House Speaker John Boehner has conceded that Republicans might accept increased tax revenues, the President has 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?
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.
If, instead, 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.
It’s anyone’s guess how Congress will deal with this chance to start afresh. That’s up to each of its members. But the opening to take 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.