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OPINION

The false promise of ‘common ground’ politics

By ROBERT GEBELHOFF | The Washington Post | Published: December 20, 2019

There’s a problem with the “common ground” that politicians so often say they seek. Sure, it may appeal to voters for lawmakers to find proposals on which they agree, but that doesn’t mean it’s good governance. Far more important — and difficult — is the work of building bridges between our separate political territories, even if doing so is unpopular.

Take the $1.4 trillion spending package that Congress passed in recent days with wide bipartisan support. The massive bill, expected to avert yet another end-of-year budget crisis, is chock-full of “common-ground” goodies: raising the minimum age to buy tobacco to 21; approving $425 million to improve election security; boosting funding for the U.S. Census; stabilizing pensions for thousands of miners.

None of these things are bad; indeed, given the decrepit state of U.S. politics, they’re worth celebrating. But the package also suffers from a different — and damaging — kind of common ground: the tendency of lawmakers to agree that they can ignore ballooning federal deficits.

The spending package is projected to add $50 billion to the federal deficit each year over the next decade — on top of the current trillion-dollar deficit. It does so with an array of bipartisan spending sprees, including expanding Pentagon budgets, eliminating unpopular taxes in the Affordable Care Act and extending what were meant to be short-term tax cuts for biodiesel producers, brewers and distillers, and others. It’s because of these “common ground” items that Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, called the bill a “bucket of garbage.”

It’s worse than deficits, though. “Common ground” achievements create a fiction of progress while the much bigger problems that demand Congress’ attention — climate change, immigration, exploding health care costs — go unresolved.

Even the best provisions in the spending bill are lackluster victories. Among the most celebrated is the allotment of $25 million for gun-violence research. This, of course, is a great development, given the unjustifiable 20-year ban on publicly funded research into the nation’s gun epidemic. But if the best common ground we can muster on gun violence is a mere $25 million to study it — when the issue has already been extensively studied outside the public realm — are we actually governing?

Far better than common ground is compromise. It’s not a sexy word: Someone who is “compromised” is vulnerable to exploitation; those who “compromise” their values are often accused of selling out. But in a sense, that’s exactly what we need: lawmakers who are willing to put themselves in a vulnerable political position for the sake of moving policy forward, even if that sometimes means giving in on issues they care about.

Consider the Reagan-era tax reform of 1986, which required lawmakers to face down relentless special interests, partisan blockades and — most potent of all — angry voters to whip the bloated tax code into shape. Negotiators from both parties closed themselves off in private rooms and hashed out the details knowing full well they wouldn’t get everything they wanted. Then-Sen. Russell Long, a Democrat from Louisiana and major player in the negotiating process, captured the final outcome best: “None of us are going to be entirely pleased with it. [There will] be some things in this bill that I’m going to have to tell the people in Louisiana I’m sorry about.” Even still, Long said, the bill was “probably the best” revenue bill of his career.

Would such a feat be possible today? Certainly not under President Donald Trump. And maybe not even under his predecessor. It’s hard to imagine a presidential candidate today saying to supporters: “I’m going to improve the status quo, even if it means doing things that you and I won’t like.”

But we can still dream of an alternate universe in which the nearly 40,000 firearm deaths a year actually motivated Democrats and Republicans to act on gun violence. Certainly, Republicans would have to concede ground on gun-reform measures — expanding background checks; closing loopholes in the system; requiring safe storage; cracking down on illegal gun sales, etc. But Democrats, too, could offer a number of concessions to show that their goal is not to trample gun rights. They might consider an exemption to background checks to allow family members to transfer guns to one another. Or they might consider changing who is barred from gun ownership from all convicted felons to those guilty of violent offenses.

The outcome won’t make everyone happy, but it would be better than doing nothing. The same could be said for trade-offs on immigration, climate and other issues.

Such courageous governing requires something much deeper and more complicated than “finding common ground.” It’s about finding a shared sense of mission — even when you vehemently disagree on the details — that you can share with your political opponents because it’s important for the country. When’s the last time we witnessed that?

Robert Gebelhoff is an assistant editor for The Washington Post’s Opinions section.

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