By MARSHA MERCER
A few hours before the federal government pointlessly shut down for lack of a budget, President Barack Obama called House Speaker John Boehner.
“I’m not going to negotiate,” the president said Monday night, according to Boehner’s account of the conversation. On the House floor, Boehner even regaled his pals with a poor imitation of the president’s “I’m not going to negotiate.”
As bad as the shutdown is, the real crisis could come when the United States reaches its limit for borrowing money Oct. 17 and faces a default on some of its debts. Republicans are insisting on spending cuts or entitlement reform equal to the amount of the increase in borrowing authority. The White House feared that if it started negotiating now over the budget, it would be weakened in the coming fight over the debt ceiling.
For his part, Boehner pledged to Republicans last January that he would not negotiate one-on-one with Obama ever again. Boehner felt heat from tea party members, who see compromise as caving, pure and simple. Plus, he felt the White House mistreated him after he attempted to reach a grand bargain on deficit reduction in 2011 and 2012.
So here we are. The country’s most powerful Democrat and Republican refused on principle to negotiate, the federal government ground to a halt for the first time in 17 years, and the worst is yet to come.
Whether you believe Obama or Boehner is right, something is very wrong when both parties dig in their heels and lead the country into a costly, stressful, avoidable crisis. We’re better than that. It’s good that the president finally invited congressional leaders to the White House to talk, but it should have happened sooner.
Boehner has acquiesced when conservative House Republicans’ claimed compromise by passing bills that everybody knew were dead on arrival in the Democratic Senate. That’s brinksmanship, not compromise.
Obama likes to say that “one faction of one party in one house of Congress in one branch of government” can’t shut the government down. Except that it has. Now what?
A recent poll indicated that most people prefer a candidate who “stands up for what he or she believes” over one who “compromises to get things done.” But that’s a false, either-or choice. We should have both: principled leaders compromise for the greater good.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is running a new re-election campaign ad around the novel notion that compromise isn’t a bad thing.
“See, I think as long as you stick to your principles, compromise isn’t a dirty word,” Republican Christie says in the ad. He insists that his every accomplishment as governor has been the result of bipartisanship.
New Jersey has a strong Democratic base, which requires bipartisanship. In the U.S. House, though, because of the way districts are drawn, lawmakers need to appeal only to like-minded constituents. There’s little, if any, upside to cooperation.
With neither side inclined to budge, we’re stuck. But what would happen if Obama and Boehner called in a true negotiator to break the impasse?
They could agree to listen to someone like Kenneth Feinberg, who has been the go-to mediator of compensation for victims of almost every major disaster in recent American history. Feinberg negotiated settlements for the victims of 9/11, the Virginia Tech shooting, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the shooting victims in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn. He most recently has been negotiating payments for victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.
He got his start in this difficult work in 1984 in a case involving Vietnam veterans who suffered exposure to Agent Orange.
For anyone who’s sick of business as usual in Washington -- and who isn’t? – it’s intriguing to consider what could happen if someone who cares about fairness, not political gain, was in charge.
As the shutdown began on Tuesday, World War II veterans came to visit their memorial in Washington only to find the memorial closed. Around the country, everyone -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- cheered upon hearing that the old soldiers simply walked or rolled their wheelchairs around the barriers.
What we need now is someone who will remove the barriers between Congress and the president, and get us rolling on the path to a functional government. Calling Ken Feinberg.
©2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.