Now that we again have divided political leadership in Madison and Washington, recent history tells us that little if anything will be accomplished in the next two years.
The obvious reason is that neither Democrats nor Republicans want to do anything that might make the “other side” look good.
After the 2008 election, Republican U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said his top priority was to ensure that newly elected President Barack Obama served only one term. That said it all about where politicians’ priorities lie, although McConnell deserves points for honesty.
But let’s step into a fantasy world where the people we elect put their duty to state and country ahead of party and examine three issues where compromise might make them all look good and actually benefit the rest of us as well.
At the federal level, two issues could be used as political trade-off — health care and immigration reform.
You may remember that in the closing weeks of the recent campaign, Republicans in Wisconsin and elsewhere were tripping over themselves telling voters that they would never allow insurance companies to deny anyone coverage because of a pre-existing condition. This of course is a cornerstone of “Obamacare,” which the Republican-controlled U.S. House voted dozens of times to repeal when Obama was president.
This proves that the issue never was health care reform, but the fact that Obama proposed it, and the Republicans weren’t about to hand him a political victory. They denigrated the idea early and often, until it apparently became clear to them by their recent campaign statements that most people agree with the protections Obamacare contains.
The scenario with immigration reform is completely flipped. True, we are a nation of immigrants, but more importantly we’re a nation of laws. President Donald Trump is right that if we don’t have borders, we don’t have a country.
I know someone who some years back came to this country on a temporary visa, studied at UW-Eau Claire and had a job waiting for her upon graduation. But under our laws, she couldn’t outstay her visa and had to leave. That told me our immigration laws need to be changed, but it also told me that if this person played by the rules and had to leave, those who break our laws and simply walk across the border shouldn’t be rewarded.
The solution seems obvious. Republicans work with Democrats to strengthen Obamacare, and in return Democrats work with Republicans to better secure our southern border and otherwise improve our immigration laws.
That, of course, would require compromise and cooperation, and we know that’s not going to happen. If we learned one thing from the Nov. 6 election results, this country remains bitterly divided nearly 50-50, so the focus isn’t on solving problems, but on tipping the majority in their favor, mainly by convincing swing voters that the “other side” is the evil empire.
One area of potential compromise in Madison is transportation funding. Wisconsin’s 32.9 cent-per-gallon gasoline tax hasn’t been raised since 2006, and the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon has stood since 1993. For many years, growth in car ownership and miles driven helped revenues stay in line with expenses. But with more fuel-efficient cars on the road, that no longer is the case.
State figures show that in 2009-10, 11 percent of Wisconsin’s transportation revenue went to interest on its debt. That figure now is 20 percent, according to a report in the April 4 Madison Capital Times. In raw numbers, that’s $4.4 billion in 2017 compared with $2.6 billion in 2007.
Borrowing for roads and pretty much everything else at the federal level is well-documented. The national debt is approaching $22 trillion. Congress isn’t required to balance its budget; the Wisconsin Legislature is.
Some argue that plenty of road projects are being completed in Wisconsin, as evidenced by the plethora of orange barrels dotting the landscape. That’s true, but more of that work is being done with borrowed money, which of course must be repaid with interest.
Indexing Wisconsin gasoline tax increases to inflation was repealed in 2006. The reasoning is that lawmakers should have the courage to vote on tax increases rather than put them on automatic pilot. So now instead of a higher gasoline tax, we have higher borrowing coupled with local “wheel taxes” springing up like weeds around the state. Increased borrowing is unfair to future taxpayers, and a user fee (gasoline tax) isn’t as regressive as a wheel tax, which hits low-income car owners the hardest.
Some in the media share blame for how they cover these things. Whenever politicians actually compromise on anything, too many talking heads focus not on the wisdom of those trying to solve problems, but on who “blinked” and gave up too much to the “other side.”
No company could succeed with such division, bickering and outright hostility among its board of directors and chief executive, and neither can our state and nation.
We dream of a better way, but sadly a dream is all it is.
Huebscher is a contributing columnist and former Leader-Telegram editor.