On Politics
12:00 am
Sun October 28, 2012

Washington gridlock and the RI Senate campaign

The federal government is mired in gridlock and it now takes a super-majority to pass legislation in the U.S. Senate. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay considers Rhode Island’s U.S. Senate race as Washington, D.C. slouches toward the fiscal precipice.

That Washington, D.C. is “broken’’ has become the campaign cliché of 2012, shouted across the land by both Democrats and Republicans. The combatants in House and Senate seats from California to Cranston point fingers of blame at each other like school children tattling at recess.

In the Rhode Island Senate contest, Republican Barry Hinckley, predictably, fires away at Democratic incumbent Sheldon Whitehouse. Hinckley asserts all that is needed is for politicians to exercise good will and reach across the aisle and come with reasonable answers. Hinckley says this can’t happen because Congress has too many senators like Whitehouse, whom he labels a `career politician.’

White’s response if that no movement is likely until the January deadline, when a new Congress gets to deal with an old problem.

Hinckley and Whitehouse do agree on this: The mess is real. It goes by the  my-eyes-glaze-over label of `sequestration.’ What is scheduled to happen in January is without precedent: an across-the board cut of federal money that was put into place by budget legislation in August of 2011 that averted default on the federal debt. What this means, in its most extreme case, is that billions of dollars would be cut from domestic and defense budgets. How would you like to be paying  your mortgage by building submarines in Quonset Point? Or meeting your college tuition with help from Pell grant?

It gets worse. On January 1, all of  the Bush-era tax cuts expire, meaning automatic tax hikes for rich and working-poor alike. So far, leaders of both parties in Congress have failed miserably in coming up with a reasonable alternative to this on rushing fiscal train wreck.

Whose fault is it? Well, there is plenty of blame to hand out on both sides of this Congressional scrum. Independent political scholars who have taken a serious look at this, such as Norm Orenstein and Thomas Mann, tend to fault Republicans more than Democrats.

Yet, there is no doubt that changes in American politics and shifts within both parties are also responsible. One of these is the national fetish for political outsiders with scant experience who boast that they will not compromise once they get to Washington.

Perhaps they need a history lesson: Political compromise is as American as baseball and Bristol’s July 4th parade. The resilience of our political system and the compromises forged over the centuries by its practitioners is the reason our country hasn’t changed governments since the Civil War with tanks in the streets. How many other countries can make that boast?

Among the reasons for this were the histories of both parties as big tent coalitions. Not so long ago, both the Democratic and Republican parties each had moderate, liberal and conservative wings: Conservative Barry Goldwater of Arizona served in a Republican Senate with moderates and liberals such as John Chafee of our state, Jake Javits of New York and Ed Brooke of Massachusetts. Dixiecrat Democrat Jim Eastland of Mississippi was in the same Democratic caucus with such liberal lions as George McGovern of South Dakota,   Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Phil Hart of Michigan.

Now our Republican and Democrats parties have evolved into left-right parties that resemble the British or Canadian parliamentary systems. When American parties were run by those dreaded career politicians, Congress worked more effectively; the deals were cut and the budgets closer to balance, except in such unusual cases as wars and depressions.

Hinckley is correct about his major difference with Whitehouse. Whitehouse has spent most of his adult life in one government job or another, from legal counsel to Gov. Bruce Sundlun during the 1990s banking crisis, to U.S. attorney for Rhode Island and attorney general. In those roles he has learned the value of compromise.

Hinckley has a background in business but none in government. Hinckley is upset that Whitehouse has declined all but two televised debates. And he scores Whitehouse, who has inherited wealth, for refusing to release his tax returns. Whitehouse says he’s withholding his returns to protect the privacy of his son, who benefits from a family trust fund. This seems like a flimsy reason, especially for a politician waging a campaign to raise taxes on the wealthy. And Whitehouse’s limits on debates appears more about political strategy than advancing democracy. In stark contrast is the campaign for U.S. House the 1st District, where Brendan Doherty and David Cicilline seem to debate almost every day.

Rhode Island was once known as a blue-collar state fond of sending blue-bloods to the Senate. Yet our state has been served well by senators of  both parties from patrician backgrounds, including Republicans John and Lincoln Chafee and such Democrats as Claiborne Pell, Theodore Francis Green and Whitehouse. And senators from modest backgrounds, including Democrats Jack Reed and John O. Pastore, have done Rhode Island proud.

What’s most striking about the gridlock in Washington is the extent to which too many voters blame the politicians. Maybe voters ought to be looking in our collective mirror. How do you think these awful politicians got to Congress?

Scott MacKay’s commentary can he heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40. You can also follow his political analysis and commentary at out `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org