KETZENBERGER: Polarizing politics paralyzes public policy

July 9, 2011

John KetzenbergerLook around. It’s not hard to find a standoff between two sides hardened by ideology.

The debt ceiling. The Minnesota Legislature (following in the grand tradition of Indiana’s, Wisconsin’s and many others this year). The unions in Great Britain and Greece. The National Football League (which is stumped over how to split $9 billion in annual revenue!), and now the National Basketball Association, which would really like to have the NFL’s “problem.”

Good grief, there are enough showdowns going down that it seems like we’ve returned to the Wild West. What’s next? Saturation coverage of the competing candidates’ bus tours arriving in Tombstone, Ariz.?

If we’re not careful with this increasingly all-or-nothing mentality, we’ll find ourselves living with tumbleweeds and dirt streets. Litmus-test politics makes compromise a dirty word and the concept of concession a sin against the party.

Anti-tax maven Grover Norquist has persuaded nearly all the Republicans in Congress to sign a pledge not to raise taxes. This gospel has spread so well that many people have become adept at voting against their own interests. Few of those adherents, for instance, will benefit from tax breaks for people who own jets, yet they vigorously defend them with rhetoric and votes.

Oh, slippery slope, I’m falling for you.

But this is a slope with a lot of space. Similarly smitten left-leaning acolytes disaffected by President Obama’s performance are only too ready to ratchet their rhetoric until the din deafens reason.

It’s so bad that I wouldn’t be surprised if the marble Lincoln sitting in his Washington, D.C., memorial has covered his ears.

Enough. It’s way past time for the vast middle to reassert itself in the debate with the call for common sense to prevail among policymakers who work toward reasonable compromise.

This is neither naïve nor impossible. Our history is marked by periods of hysteria, whether it’s the run-up to civil war or the Red Scare embodied by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Eventually, sometimes painfully, our society comes to its senses.

The simple remedy—enlightened engagement by the public—is difficult to administer. We’ve got to quit rising to the bait of fear dangled by self-aggrandizing talk show hosts, bloggers and unscrupulous politicians, and reassert our collective intelligence to rebuild community.

A lot is made of the lack of respect shown these days between opponents on any given issue. Calling names at high volume, however, does not command respect. That is a commodity earned over time by thoughtful people of good intention.

From time to time, situations boil over and people freak out. It’s how we handle the aftermath that matters. The House Democrats’ walkout that halted the General Assembly for five weeks this year is a good example.

On the session’s first day, Rep. Pat Bauer drew a line in the sand warning against legislation that would curtail collective bargaining rights. When the Republican majority moved such a bill through committee, the Democrats walked.

After a few days, Republicans reconsidered and it looked like the temporary stalemate would end. Democrats, perhaps emboldened by events in Wisconsin and the polarized political atmosphere, listed new grievances and prolonged the stalemate. A simple scrape morphed into a test of wills.

There were no victors when the process resumed. Federal courts already have enjoined portions of two bills passed in the polarized Statehouse. Drafting errors like the one in House Bill 1216 that delayed by six months implementation of new construction wage requirements occurred because there wasn’t time to properly review the legislation.

Good public policy is impossible until opponents quit seeing their opponents with horns and forked tails. Let’s recall Lincoln, who paraphrased the Gospel of Matthew in 1858: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

This time, the issue is not slavery. It’s not any one issue in public discourse—it’s all of them. We citizens better snap-to soon, so we don’t have to suffer the consequences of this divided house as long as they did in Lincoln’s day.•


Ketzenberger is president of the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute, a not-for-profit dedicated to non-partisan research into the state’s tax policies and budget practices. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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