Joe Biden will take the oath of office on January 20th facing a profoundly polarized country. The House of Representatives will remain in Democratic Party control and the Senate will most likely remain majority Republican. Neither house of Congress will have the kind of majorities that one could term a mandate for anything but continued obstruction and a failure to govern.
In 2008 Democrats had control of the Presidency and both houses of Congress. They passed a signature Democratic bill, the Affordable Care Act. In 2016, the Republicans had control of both houses and the Presidency. The first major legislative result was the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017. Both parties displayed the priorities their constituencies might expect of them.
When power was not unified, both Obama and Trump ruled by Executive Order and through the use of Cabinet Department powers to regulate or deregulate.
We are now deeply enmeshed in a self-feeding cycle of distrust and demonization that prevents the compromises our check and balance system of government was designed to encourage. Checks on power were not placed in our Constitution as obstacles to governance. They are there to facilitate the best outcome for the general good of the country.
Total control of the branches of government cannot be the only environment in which the people can expect their elected officials to do their jobs.
America faces enormous challenges.
We are confronted by a pandemic that threatens to get much worse before a vaccine can be reasonably distributed. We have a public so distrustful of government and science that the ability to vaccinate a large enough segment of the population may be undermined.
Our economy is severely damaged with certain sectors, especially tourism and hospitality, likely to require a long period of time and an infusion of resources to recover any semblance of what they once were.
We have witnessed an outpouring of anger and protest over racial justice that will not abide being ignored.
Rising sea levels, more frequent major storms, drought, uncontrollable fires are all signs of a crisis that requires action.
Jobs, education, cyber security, and national security issues all need ongoing attention.
The country cannot continue to bear governance defined in terms of brief windows of party control when a flurry of activity occurs taking items only from one party’s agenda.
By most recent counts Joe Biden gained over 78 million votes and Donald Trump 73 million. Joe Biden will take the oath of office, but over 150 million voters cannot be divided into winners and losers.
So how do we address governance?
It must start by reaffirming our belief that our representatives are in office to govern not to obstruct. Compromise is an art of governance does not constitute surrendering to enemies. There have been instances when some members of both parties were willing to work together to craft legislation. Often those opportunities were lost when the leadership felt political gamesmanship more important than resolving problems facing the American people.
The election reduced the majority margin of Democrats in the House. It also will likely result in a paper-thin majority for Republicans in the Senate where 60 votes are often necessary. We cannot afford a government that ignores the wishes and needs of the people for the sake of leadership intent on preserving political power.
How do we start to revive a sense of compromise and service to all of the people?
It must start by finding the areas where agreement is most likely possible. These areas of potential compromise exist if the solutions we seek do not have to come solely from the playbook of only one of the two major parties.
We need to take the actions required to justly distribute vaccines for COVID-19 with the funding to make it happen.
We need assistance to help revive a badly damaged economy where small businesses are failing for lack of support during a once in a century pandemic.
Green energy measures can win support from both sides while a Green New Deal will be DOA in Mitch McConnell’s Senate.
Jobs programs, tackling infrastructure issues, shoring up national security, especially in areas of cyber security, these and many other areas can be used to restore faith in governance.
They can help us start well and avoid more distortion of government into warring camps where nothing is done as the parties wait for another election cycle and hope for a brief period of total power.
There are those in Washington who prefer to use power to obstruct and deny “victories” to their opponents. Together we need to denounce that form of governance. The problems we face will not wait while we continue to indulge our stubborn intolerance for anything that may benefit what we have come to see as “the other side.”
Actually, I do see cause for optimism, at least in the House, where the Problem Solvers Caucus, 25 members from each party, meet weekly to come to “Yes” on many of the issues before them. In George Washington’s Farewell Address, he warned about the “danger of (political) parties,” and we certainly see that played out today. We will be better represented when those whom we send to Washington can speak their minds, than under the current polarized structure which is lead from the top down. Who knows; maybe a divided government will be just what we need to cause us to see that we need to talk to one another.