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BIRNBAUM: In praise of moderation

Voters have rewarded extremity in the views of their elected officials

- The Washington Times - Friday, November 19, 2010

The biggest lie of 2010 is this: "I want to go to Washington to get things done." The biggest truth of 2010 is this: Official Washington is too polarized to allow that to happen.

Ironically - and tragically - the same candidates who ardently promised change during the midterm elections are least able to accomplish that aim.

The result down the road could be another wave election that tosses the bums - now the heroes - out.

Dozens of candidates for Congress who are now incoming Republican freshmen ran on the platform of reducing the size of government, holding the line on taxes and shrinking the federal debt. But these laudable goals cannot happen quickly or, in some cases, at all because of the power structure in Washington.

Democrats, who nominally control the Senate and actually control the White House, stand for the opposite. They don't want to slash federal spending and would prefer to cut the debt by raising taxes.

In an earlier era, each side would have given a little and passed legislation that would dent the deficit.

Spending cuts, yes. Tax increases (probably referred to by a different name), certainly. That's the way things got done.

But no longer.

Democrats and Republicans have talked themselves into a corner or, more precisely, have promised themselves into opposite ends of the political spectrum and can't seem to get out. They can't compromise without betraying the voters who put them in office, and they are ever more reluctant to do so.

The result is a sad situation for lawmakers, their constituents and the nation as a whole.

Lawmakers increasingly think their primary job is to win re-election. They fail to take seriously their responsibility to take prudent positions regardless of voter response. They succumb to pander politics and take rhetorical positions rather than seek workable middle ground.

Constituents confuse Washington debates with other forms of light entertainment. They lock themselves into ideological cement and demand that their representatives parrot their views. To them, the nation's capital seems like a foreign capital, and they don't demand serious progress, only loud combat.

The nation overall is a loser as well. Cancerous problems like annual budget deficits become talk-show diversions. Determined efforts to find solutions are relegated to come-one-day-disappear-another commissions.

One day the debt burden will break the public bank and cause a worldwide crisis. But until that happens, U.S. leaders will fiddle, feint and do nothing more than talk.

A small exception is possible in the meantime. There's a bipartisan belief, in the wake of the Republican victories on Nov. 2, that some restraint must be placed on federal expenditures. Even President Obama has said as much and is leaning toward reining in spending soon.

Therein lies some hope for compromise. A leading option: placing a cap, or limit, on the federal outlays that are determined by Congress each year. This so-called discretionary spending does not include big-ticket items such as Medicare and Social Security. But it is a start and will slow the swelling debt in a noticeable way.

Watch that idea grow in both political parties as the president gets closer to submitting his own spending proposals in February.

But to make major progress on the fiscal situation, a crisis probably would have to rock the globe. No one wants that, of course. But recent woes in Ireland and Portugal make such a calamity a real threat.

Such a crisis could well force the kind of grand bargain that budget hawks have been seeking for years. The GOP would have no choice but to agree to tax increases, and the Democrats would have to accept a smaller and less insistent government.

But until such a worldwide reversal, not much can - or will - happen in Washington.

Lawmakers won't be able to fulfill their election promises and, eventually, will incur the voters' wrath. Another wave election, formerly a once-a-decade occurrence, will sweep the capital in short order. Majorities will flip again.

How can this be avoided? Maybe the warring camps can talk compromise before they face an economic disaster. It may not be as entertaining, but a little moderation could benefit the country and save a lot of lawmakers' jobs.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations.

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